For those now of a certain unaskable age, there is an untouchable triumverate of children’s TV presenters: Bernard Cribbins, Floella Benjamin and Derek Griffiths. To see Griffiths stride out on stage is enough to spark any 40-something’s inner six year-old into bellowing the boos he demands as King Rat, Dick Whittington’s long-tailed nemesis in this classic pantomime.
It’s clever casting – a draw for older parents, while perma-tanned goofball Paul Danan draws in the 30-somethings. Tina from S Club 7 would have been the pull for parents in their 20s, but she’s ill and off the bill (retch for the stars, poor lamb?) so we have a brilliant, unbilled Stacey Solomonesque replacement as Fairy Bowbells, all quick wit and waffle in a shimmering splash of sequins and a sparkling meringue of a miniskirt. There’s not one dud actor in this relatively unknown cast (apart from Danan, and that’s deliberate) and they are tireless and infectious with their sparkling, energetic performances.
The show has more puns than a Two Ronnies special, and the innuendo is thick and fast (no Paul Danan jokes, please, Joe Tracini’s Idle Jack has those covered.) Jack and David Phipps-Davis’ Sarah The Cook are magnificent, ad libbing fiercely (as does Griffiths) and working the dick jokes hard and close to the bone. Phipps-Davis has more costume changes than a Vegas showgirl, while Jack’s Alan Carr in a Mr Tumble suit shtick had me roaring with laughter. (Tracini and Phipps-Davis are both from Medway and it’s so good to see this calibre of theatre coming from local men.)
From opening number ‘Proud Mary’, through an S Club medley (oh, Tina!), Lunchmoney Lewis, Michael Jackson and Take That numbers, the songs are, in the words of my five year-old, “absolutely perfect”. That opener comes with some full chorus, high energy dancing that reminded me of the ‘Twist n Shout’ scene in ‘Ferris Bueller’s Day Off’. (Yes, dads, there are dirndls. But they’ve got nothing on the sailor suits in the second half.)
There’s a whole scene of cheese jokes worthy of a box of crackers, all the usual call and response, and even space to dance (my child was twirling in the aisle).
The only thing missing at the moment is an audience. The Central Theatre seems to draw the bulk of family audiences. And that’s a shame. Because this is truly great, traditional panto exactly as it should be. No expensive bells and whistles other than those in the orchestral pit, just a heck of a lot of wit, glitter and greasepaint. It’s affordable, accessible, interactive, joyful and magical. It’s also easy to catch a bus to and there’s a ton of free parking. Oh yes there is. Behind you. We loved it.
‘Dick Whittington’ runs until 3 January at The Britannia Theatre, Chatham Dockside.