Dick Whittington and His Cat

Joel Horwood and Morgan Lloyd Malcolm

The Lyric, Hammersmith

(2010)

Review by Simon Sladen

Panto is back at the Lyric for a second year running and, with Jack and the Beanstalk behind them, the theatre tackles yet another male-led narrative, Dick Whittington and his Cat. Of course, situated in Hammersmith, the Lyric is the prime location for a tale all about London Town.

Last year's pantomime was an admirable debut from the theatre, but this year Sarah the Cook is really cooking with gas. The audience are involved from start to finish and Joel Horwood and Morgan Lloyd Malcolm have crafted a fine script, in which the fun and frolics come strong and fast.

Some people are born to play Dame and Shaun Prendergast is one of these; it is quite unbelievable to think that Dick Whittington is his pantomime d(am)ebut. His glorious Sarah the Cook could very well be the love-child of Dame Edna Everage and Timmy Mallett; well versed in double-entendres and quick put downs, whilst manically energetic and highly eccentric. Appearing in a variety of bold and garish costumes, courtesy of Tom Scutt, Prendergast has the entire audience on side from the moment he bursts onto stage with his larger than life laugh.

The show begins with a dazzling rendition of 'Don't Stop Believing' - a pure moment of theatricality where Mamma Mia meets Mary Poppins, but what makes this number 'work' are the re-written lyrics. So often contemporary songs are shoe-horned into pantomimes to merely feed off their popularity and in doing so appear out of place and detached from the narrative. Here, some witty changes to the aforementioned song, alongside Lady Gaga's 'Bad Romance', the Jackson 5's 'Can You Feel It', Jay-Z's 'Empire State of Mind' and Katy Perry's 'California Girls' give Dick Whittington an extremely contemporary feel. There is great skill required to fit the songs to the subject matter and the new renditions are fully embraced by the audience, who marvel at the wording wizardry that has taken place.

Every pantomime needs a hero, but the Dick of this tale, played by Steven Webb, isn't bold and fearless, but rather wet and wimpish. He's nice but dim and takes on many of the Comic's simplistic characteristics, seeing as there isn't an Idle Jack. Unfortunately director Steve Marmion has turned his Principal Boy into a knowingly-mocking parody, which undermines the genre that he otherwise directs well.

As cast sizes across the country dwindle, the dispensing of the Comic is occurring more and more frequently and in cases where the Comic has been culled, the Principal Boy usually becomes a Comic Principal Boy as the characters are merged. This isn't really the case here and indeed The Cat, played by Paul J Medford, assumes most, if not all of the Comic's functions, including the establishment of a link between stalls and stage with a contemporary call and response of "Wha'Gwan boys and girls" to which the audience replies "What's new pussycat?"

Medford makes a wonderful Cat with plenty of 'street' and it seems that the Lyric is slowly establishing a very particular brand of pantomime to call its own. Last year's Principal Boy, Jack, was also rather dim and had a comedy cow companion to replace Simple Simon and provide the obligatory humour and pratfalls.

Further similarities can be also seen between the two productions, such dispensing with the Fairy character (Fairy Bow-Bells is nowhere to be seen) and, drawing upon the success of the Lyric's celebrity voiceovers last year, Stephen Fry and Alan Davies play two bells, Ding and Dong, who narrate the story and fill in the gaps.

We also see the return of a sassy Principal Girl in the form of Alice Fitzwarren, played by Rosalind James, and a not-so-evil sidekick, who goes by the name of Scaramouche, for Simon Kunz's villainous King Rat. What these character decisions demonstrate is that times have changed; as society evolves, so must pantomime. We no longer truthfully believe in fairies as the Victorians did, and those outdated Victorian ideals about a man and woman's role in society are thankfully almost gone for good. Pantomime must move with the times in order to survive. As history as shown, it does this rather well - is the Lyric's production the future?

Dick Whittington is a wonderful show that brings panto up to date for our post-millennial multicultural Britain. Rather than looking backwards and trying to regain the past, Dick Whittington captures the contemporary for all to enjoy. Dick Whittington at the Lyric is most definitely neat, street, and a wicked festive treat.

Playing until 8th January 2011.