Dick Whittington

Jamie Alexander Wilson
Magic Beans Pantomimes
Grove Theatre, Dunstable

Back: Ben Irish (Dick Whittington) and Lucy Reed (Alice Fitzwarren) Front: Ryan Maloney (Idle Jack), Elloise Jones (Tommy) and Leon Craig (Sarah the Cook)
Ryan Maloney (Idle Jack) and Leon Craig (Sarah the Cook)
Jasette Amos (Fairy Bowbells) and Leslie Grantham (Dirty Rat)

A new era of pantomime is dawning in Dunstable as Magic Beans Pantomimes present their first festive production at the Grove Theatre.

Celebrating its 200th season as a pantomime title, Dick Whittington tells the tale of a young boy who sets off to London to seek his fame and fortune. With a little help from Fairy Bowbells and Tommy the Cat, he manages to thwart the dastardly King Dirty Rat's plan for rotten rodent rule and become thrice Lord Mayor of London complete with love of his life Alice Fitzwarren at his side.

In Jamie Alexander Wilson's production, Alice Fitzwarren is the sole owner of Fitzwarren's shop after inheriting the business as a result of her father dying from a rat-related disease. This dispenses with the Alderman character completely and leaves Alice free to make her own decisions about who to date, who to employ and whether or not to join the ship as it sets sail for Morocco.

In doing so, Wilson provides the pantomime with a strong and inspirational female Principal Girl, even if this does mean the shop is left unattended as she journeys across the North Atlantic Ocean accompanied by her employees.

The reason for Morocco as Alice's intended destination is clearly explained from the start, which provides the piece with a strong narrative. As the chosen purveyors of rat poison by the Sultan, Alice must personally deliver the goods and help rid Morocco of their very own vermin infestation.

Having dispensed with the Alderman, who often doubles as the Sultan, Wilson employs a welcome plot device that sees Dirty Rat overthrow the Sultan of Morocco on his quest for world domination and in disguise confronts Dick Whittington having shipwrecked Fitzwarren's vessel.

In his second Magic Beans pantomime, Leslie Grantham channels his EastEnders persona as Dirty Rat and commands the stage, eliciting boos from all sections of the audience as he delivers his couplets with menacing malice. What makes the production's celebrity casting work so well is that it never takes precedence and the piece retains its ensemble feel, with celebrity being incited on a few chosen occasions for maximum impact.

Sharing the bill with Grantham is Neighbours's Ryan Maloney, another experienced panto performer who makes a fine Comic alongside Leon Craig's outrageous Dame. The two make the perfect panto pairing and provide the piece with great energy and life. Whilst Maloney's Jack bounces around the stage like a naughty schoolboy, Craig's fruity Sarah the Cook humorously puts him in his place with the show's comedy arising from the characters' constant squabbling and glee as they try to catch each other out.

The couple's comic antics are made even funnier by the truthful approach to the roles of Dick Whittington and Alice Fitzwarren played by Ben Irish and Lucy Reed, who sing beautifully and ensure the audience want to invest in their characters as they fall in love and receive the Happy Ending they deserve.

Music is always an integral part of a Magic Beans Pantomime and the company now boasts the best sound of any commercial producer. Dunstable's five-piece band under the direction of Sam Hall makes every musical number come alive, which, when combined with the singing prowess of Jasette Amos's Fairy Bowbells, fills the auditorium full of pantomime magic.

Act two's Drill and Ghost Gag whip the audience into a frenzy, although the latter is rather extended due to its six-person involvement, much like an overly long shop sequence in act one that merges together We're All Square, Busy Bee and Naughty Sausages, stalling the narrative and decreasing the final payoff.

Nevertheless, it is a treat to see so many pantomime staples executed with skill in a production that also boasts a superb Tommy the Cat in the form of Elloise Jones.

Reviewer: Simon Sladen