Dick Whittington and His Cat
Written and directed by Joyce Branagh
Palace Theatre, Watford
Created by the team that has given Watford its panto every year since 2005 -- director Branagh and designer Keith Orton -- this is a gorgeous looking feel-good show that is strongly centred on the audience. Orton has given it an ornate classical false proscenium with a beautifully drawn front cloth montage of London landmarks that lifts the audience's spirits as soon as they come in. When the lights go down and the band strikes up the house is swept by patterns of light that make them already feel part of the show and someone who starts them clapping to the overture sets off an evening of active participation.
This year the Palace is celebrating its centenary so forget the middle-ages, after a welcoming prologue from Liz Pulman's Fairy Bow-Bells and a brief appearance from King Rat (Peter Holdway) so that we all know who to boo, the story starts with Dick's arrival in Watford, outside this theatre in 1908. That is where Dick meets Tommy the Cat, a frilly-furred tortoiseshell, in this production given the gift of speech, and soon Tom Bradley (Dick) and Dale Superville (Tommy) are rehearsing the audience in a lively response of 'Hello Tommy, Miaow!' whenever he greets them - and singling out a member of the audience for special attention that continues throughout the show.
But it is London Dick is bound for and Bow Bells call them (no Highgate Hill and 'turn-again' on this occasion - the story is trimmed down to its essentials) and next we are outside Alderman Fitzwarren's and meeting Howard Coggins's very ample Sarah the Cook establishing another immediate rapport with the audience. Jeff Nicholson and Sia Kiwa, as Fitzwarren and his daughter Alice, don't need that process: the audience is already with them.
Sarah has some outrageous outfits - hats that feature Tower Bridge and a lighthouse lamp, and some wonderfully jokey frocks covered in fried egg, shells (a 'shell suit') and she even turns into a mermaid when Fitzwarren's ship is sunk and they descend to Neptune's kingdom where Nicholson has a delightfully languid double as the underwater king. No island ruler plagued with rats - in this version they have invaded Neptune's palace and we not only get a giant octopus (six legs, two arms provide the tentacles!) but a delightful ballet (choreographer Nikki Woollaston) in which the girls of the child chorus are jelly fish and the boys a pair of sea-urchins, joined by Alice Jackson as Neptune's daughter Persil.
A mere gesture towards a traditional 'slop' scene is a little disappointing but a clever little front-cloth trio for Fairy, King Rat and a captive Neptune makes up for that.
Branagh and her Musical Supervisor John Rigby have assembled a mixture of traditional songs and some contemporary pop. Often a song is only briefly quoted - as in a few self-referential lines when the cast are (literally) pulling their sinking ship apart after King Rat has blown it up and they launch into 'Breaking up is hard to do' -- sometimes stringing a few phrases from several numbers in a medley. The music is a vital element that sweeps the show along, though a decision to accompany longer numbers with flashing spots scouring the auditorium like a disco seemed a mistake to me: you can't see the performers with a bright light in your eyes so it alienates rather then links one to them, though clearly the intention is to add excitement and involvement. It didn't help that the amplification often made lyrics incomprehensible - though a younger person pointedly tells me that is a 'generational problem.'
It certainly didn't stop me from enjoying my first panto of the year and though I have quite a few to come I will be surprised if I see a better-looking one. It certainly won the audience over, getting young and old standing for the song sheet number (a new version of an old favourite ('How much is that Moggy in the window?'), with the sole exception I think of one lady critic! While one half of the house is on Tommy's side the other is led by Natasha Cox's as King Rat's sidekick Nat, a 'baddie' with a big charisma and a nifty mover. There are some big personalities in this cast but they are pulling together for the good of the show - the competition is between the goodies and baddies, not the performers and not one of them is an out-of their depth refugee from a reality show or a soap-opera despite the TV references in the script.
The Palace started its life as a house for variety and with a fund raising gala coming up on December 13th with a number of guest stars added to the cast this makes a lively and fitting contribution to the centenary celebrations.
Continues until 3rd January 2009
Reviewer: Howard Loxton