Dick Whittington: The Rock ‘n’ Roll Panto

Peter Rowe
City Varieties Music Hall
City Varieties Music Hall, Leeds

Listing details and ticket info...

The cast Credit: Ant Robling
Kenny Davies (Alderman Fitzwarren) and Daniel Miles (Billy Bungalow) Credit: Ant Robling
James Hudson (Rat Scurvy), Tim Roberts (Rat Smallpox) and Lana Walker (Fairy) Credit: Ant Robling

People are often dismissive of pantomimes, and I can understand why. After all, they are designed to be silly and throwaway, relying upon a catalogue of well-established conventions that allow children—many of whom will be experiencing live theatre for the first time—to follow what is happening on stage. At worst, they can be dull affairs, stuffed with cash-hungry celebrities and laboured jokes.

At their best, however, pantomimes can be hugely entertaining, bringing families together and providing children with a theatre-going memory they can treasure. This is resolutely the case with Dick Whittington: The Rock ‘n’ Roll Panto, which re-unites the creative team responsible for last year’s excellent production of Beauty and the Beast at City Varieties Music Hall.

My main gripe with this production is that Dick Whittington is simply not as good a fairy tale as Cinderella or Snow White. When a friend asked me about the story before seeing the show, I vaguely responded that it involved a young man travelling to London to make his fortune… and possibly a cat.

It turns out I was correct, but writer Peter Rowe has managed to put extra meat on the story’s bones. Good-hearted Yorkshire lad Dick Whittington (Ben Mabberley) travels to the capital with his trusty companion Tabby (Rhiannon Hopkins), a feline ninja expert, to seek his fortune. Once he arrives, he quickly falls in love with Alice (Claire Keenan), the daughter of Alderman Fitzwarren (Kenny Davies).

However, their romance is interrupted by the wicked King Rat (Ben Stratton), who conspires with the broken-hearted Billy Bungalow (Daniel Miles) to get Dick banished from the city. Will Dick and Alice be reunited? Will King Rat be defeated? Well, it is a pantomime!

On the night I attended, the children in the audience were totally spellbound by the production, and I even noticed that a small group of them had formed a mosh pit near the stage during one of the musical numbers. Dick Whittingon really is a huge amount of fun!

One of the chief selling points of the show is the fact that all the actors are also musicians, so when they aren’t in character they’re playing a variety of instruments. This undoubtedly adds another dimension to the show, and the eclectic range of songs—which includes “Walking on Sunshine”, “Uptown Girl”, “Tainted Love” and, most bizarrely, “Pretty Vacant” by the Sex Pistols—ensures that there is something for everyone.

The show’s greatest virtue, however, is that it is consistently funny throughout. I have complained in the past about innuendo being used in pantomimes, mostly because it can be excruciating when done badly. The comic possibilities of the main character’s name are fully exploited by Rowe, who offers a lovely mixture of groan-worthy Dad jokes and genuine side-splitters.

The ensemble is uniformly terrific, particularly Simon Nock as Sarah the Cook, who is probably the best Dame I have ever seen. From the second he arrives on stage, you feel that you are in a safe pair of hands. Kenny Davies—who has featured in all of the rock ‘n’ roll pantos since 2011—is also great value as the (initially) reluctant object of Sarah’s affections.

Ben Mabberley and Claire Keenan are enormously likeable, and Daniel Miles displays superb clowning skills as Billy Bungalow; I particularly enjoyed his impromptu rendition of Shakespeare.

Ben Stratton makes a suitably dastardly villain, and Lana Walker is an effervescent fairy. Rhiannon Hopkins doesn’t get to sing until the very end, but her street-fighting take on Dick’s feline friend makes a refreshing change. There is also strong support from James Hudson and Tim Roberts as two of King Rat's minions.

City Varieties Music Hall is one of the most beautiful theatres in the country, but its limited space means this pantomime is less extravagant than some others. Fortunately, Dawn Allsopp’s set is pleasingly adaptable, and the costumes are quirky and imaginative. I appreciated the way they dressed Dick up as James Dean à la Rebel Without a Cause and Alice’s preppy costume reminded me of the fearsome bullies in Heathers.

As Christmas approaches, the theatres are stuffed with pantomimes and family shows. If you live near Leeds and fancy some festive giggles, I heartily recommend Dick Whittington.

Reviewer: James Ballands