Dick Whittington

Michael Harrison and Alan McHugh with additional material by The Krankies and Matt Slack

Qdos Entertainment

Birmingham Hippodrome

From 19 December 2016 to 29 January 2017

Review by Simon Sladen

All eyes may be on the London Palladium this season, but the Birmingham Hippodrome is where it's at for a pantomime full of comedy, tradition, stars and spectacle.

Still very much the Home of Pantomime, the Hippodrome's Dick Whittington sets the gold standard of what 21st-century pantomime should be in a production that celebrates the genre and moves it forward with the aid of impressive technology, stunning scenery and an experienced cast.

Last seen at the Hippodrome in 2008's Robin Hood, John Barrowman makes a triumphant return as the titular character and proves himself a perfect pantomime performer. Not only does he effortlessly engage the audience, but his musical theatre background means that the show's numbers are enriched with his charismatic performance as he plays his part in telling the tale of the boy who seeks fame and fortune in London Town.

Michael Harrison and Alan McHugh's script carefully plots the narrative and establishes the significance of King Rat's desire for rotten rodent rule from the off. In the role, Steve McFadden is a glorious Villain, gravel-voiced and constantly clawing for power as he whips his rat tail and encourages the audience to boo at every opportunity.

With such as strong cast, the audience feel involved and engaged on an adventure which sees Jodie Prenger's feisty Fairy Bow Bells preside over proceedings and Danielle Hope's charming Alice Fitzwarren the apple of Dick's eye.

Although the production doesn't utilise Taofique Folarin's brummie Babby the Tabby as much as one might expect given that he is permitted the power of speech, it does showcase some of the finest comedy talent around and none more so than Matt Slack's Idle Jack.

Now in his record-breaking fourth consecutive season at the Hippodrome, and already announced for 2017's Cinderella, Slack is one of the greatest pantomime performers of the 21st century. His physicality and commitment to the role have the audience in stitches with both him and Andrew Ryan's Sarah the Cook owning the stage for a pun-run using DVD titles and what is now somewhat of a tradition: a musical mash-up of pop song samples as Idle Jack comically converses with his mother.

But Ryan's Dame isn't the only example of gender bending on the Hippodrome stage this year; more cross-dressed capers come courtesy of The Krankies as Councillor and Jimmy. Having headlined many a panto since 1978, the two know the form inside out and, by replacing the Alderman with a Councillor, the narrative constantly reminds us of Dick's quest to become Lord Mayor of London.

An impressive and slightly darker than usual 3D sequence takes the audience underwater on a submarine adventure and poor Jimmy Krankie gets caught in the clutches of a magnificent Jaws before the crew land on Morocco after an aquatic inspired "12 Days of Christmas" number.

Whilst a ride back to London with Rudolph and Santa's sleigh seems a little farfetched even for Pantoland, and a Comedy Bedroom Sequence in act one ends without pay-off, the Hippodrome has once again succeeded in a pantomime full of passion and polish.