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The National Theatre: Dick Whittington | Review

Put it this way – the National Theatre hasn’t done pantomime for a long time, and it shows. They did well to avoid celebrity casting, and while their efforts were honourable in their tribute to each and every other theatre in the country whose pantomimes have been postponed for a year (or even cancelled altogether for certain venues that have permanently closed their doors), it was like watching the England football team in the knock-out stages of the World Cup: they gave it their all, for sure, but it just didn’t turn out as well as it could have done.

The National Theatre: Dick WhittingtonThere are the inevitable ‘dick’ jokes (if anything, there weren’t enough of them) and perhaps the production was held back somewhat by coronavirus restrictions: the usual ‘call and response’ in pantomimes was conspicuous by its absence, though Bow Belles (Melanie La Barrie) does what she can in terms of audience participation, encouraging clapping and what BBC Television’s Strictly Come Dancing calls ‘armography’. And then there’s the production’s messages of hope and inspiration in these terrible times. “We’ll get through it. We just have to carry on being kind!” is the sort of statement that rightly elicited applause from the socially distanced audience.

Indeed, repeated references throughout to the challenges of the coronavirus pandemic leaves the viewer with no hope at all of escapism. The cast are enthusiastic and buoyant, doing what they can with what they are given. There’s chart music galore – so much so, that at times I wondered if I was actually watching a pantomime or a jukebox musical. London is portrayed as a difficult place – ultimately, it’s difficult to disagree that life in the capital has its problems – but the plot isn’t sufficiently convincing. While the ‘turn again Whittington, Lord Mayor of London’ line from the traditional story is retained, almost everything else has been brought into the modern era (a Covid-secure embrace in one of the final scenes being a case in point) that the pivotal moment that persuades the title character to return to the Big Smoke seems either jarring or otherwise downright illogical.

More use could, perhaps, have been made of ubiquitous digital technology in the storyline. Bow Belles still physically comes into Sarah Fitzwarren’s (Dickie Beau) shop, looking for Whittington – this being 2020, did she not try WhatsApping him? Cleve September’s Tom Cat, meanwhile, is a hugely likeable figure. The show does have some good moments, most of which belonging to Fitzwarren, including a love story using various places and districts in the London area, and a modified version of ‘I am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General’ from Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance, in which the ever-changing rules, guidelines and laws about one can and cannot do are suitably lampooned.

Perhaps pantomime really should be enjoyed in person even more than other forms of theatre. The production values are high but, goodness me, it could have been more briskly paced. About two-thirds of the way through, I was reminded of the London 2012 Olympic Games Opening Ceremony – a lot of things were happening, but it was simply too long. I raised a smile at the Queen Rat (Amy Booth-Steel) contesting the result of the mayoral election – the cry of “Stop the count!” was a thinly-veiled snide allusion to a certain political leader. That this pantomime managed to go ahead at all is a significant achievement, and having it on YouTube for a few days is, at least, reaching a truly international audience.

3 Star Review

Review by Chris Omaweng

At a time when many theatres across the country have sadly been forced to cancel or postpone their pantomimes, the National Theatre is celebrating panto’s place at the heart of British theatre. The free stream of Jude Christian and Cariad Lloyd’s hilarious version of Dick Whittington, directed by Ned Bennett, promises to provide festive fun to homes across the UK and around the world.

First staged at Lyric Hammersmith in 2018 and freshly updated for 2020, Ned Bennett directs this wild and inventive production and explores what it is like to come from a small town and arrive in a big city today. With a host of colourful characters, irreverent jokes, talking animals and popular songs this is Dick Whittington as never seen before.

The cast includes Melanie La Barrie as Bow Belles, Dickie Beau as Sarah, Amy Booth-Steel as Queen Rat, Laura Checkley as Mayor Pigeon, Lawrence Hodgson-Mullings as Dick Whittington, Georgina Onuorah as Alice and Cleve September as Tom Cat. Beth Hinton-Lever, Travis Kerry, Jaye Marshall, Ken Nguyen, Tinovimbanashe Sibanda and Christopher Tendai also join the company.

Set and costume designs by Georgia Lowe, choreography by Dannielle ‘Rhimes’ Lecointe, compositions, arrangements and music production by DJ Walde, music supervision by Marc Tritschler and music direction and additional composition and arrangements by Benjamin Kwasi Burrell. Lighting designed by Jessica Hung Han Yun and Sound Design by Paul Arditti. Denzel Westley-Sanderson is Associate Director, Debbie Duru is Associate Set Designer, Fiona Parker is Associate Costume Designer and Assistant Choreographer is Jackie Kibuka.

Watch Dick Whittington for FREE on the National Theatre YouTube channel from 3pm (UK time) on 23 December until midnight (UK time) on 27 December.

https://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/

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