Alan McHugh with additional material by Julian Clary, Paul Zerdin and David McGillivray
Last year saw the triumphant return of pantomime to the London Palladium. Seen by many as the home of pantomime, this year the venue plays host to Dick Whittington, the tale of a simple Gloucester boy who sets out to seek fame and fortune in London town.
Having wowed critics with his portrayal of Arthur Kipps in Half a Sixpence, Charlie Stemp follows in the footsteps of fellow Kippian Tommy Steele to take the title role. Stemp is that rarity in Pantoland, a Principal Boy who can sing, dance and act in equal measure, which choreographer Karen Bruce puts to great use making him pirouette at every opportunity and lead dance routines.
It takes a good twenty minutes before the talented ensemble fill the stage in bejewelled costumes to warrant the arrival of Julian Clary's Bella Belvadere, the Spirit of the Bells, upsetting the usual pantomime structure of the Immortals launching the narrative with a duel.
Declaring that those in need need only ring his bell and he'll be there to guide safe passage, Clary is the Master of Innuendo with 'Dick' jokes coming thick and fast giving the mainly adult audience great pleasure. In an array of exquisite costumes encompassing mock-Tudor buildings, subaquatic sea-creatures and pearly Kings and Queens, Clary is the real driving force of the show and strikes up an unusual double act with Nigel Havers's Captain Nigel, building upon the two's rapport from 2017’s Cinderella. With Havers grateful for any stage time and Clary constantly reminding him of the show’s billing, much humour comes from the enforcement of hierarchies with Clary’s put-downs contrasting Havers’s eagerness.
Whereas in 2010's production at the Birmingham Hippodrome Clary duelled against Joan Collins's Queen Rat, this year's battle is pitched against the First Lady of Musical Theatre Elaine Paige. Not dissimilar to Clary’s, Paige’s entrance is also stalled to around thirty minutes into proceedings, leaving the act one's narrative suffering somewhat structurally and her impact unaided by a rather limp opening number.
Where Paige excels is through her musical numbers that send her, her roles and the genre up. A duet with Clary to the tune of "I know him so well" in which they sing of handling Dick has the audience in stitches, as does her "Non, je ne regrette rien" after an extremely rushed conclusion which sees Queen Rat concede after simply gaining sight of Lukus Alexander's nimble Eileen the Cat.
Arguably, the story of Dick Whittington is the least known of all pantomime tales, which gives scriptwriters the opportunity to play with it the most. Alan McHugh's script stays true to the English folktale, but tweaks the pantomime narrative to dispense with the Alderman and make Sarah not a cook, but the proprietor of a sweet shop with Emma Williams's angelic Alice working alongside her.
As Sarah, Gary Wilmot delivers a maternal Dame complete with charming sweetshop number set to "Flash, Bang, Wallop", a nod to the fact that both he and Stemp have played Kipps in the past. A pun-run of confectionary delivers laughs a plenty, but it is Wilmot who really stops the show in act two as he delivers every single tube station to the tune Offenbach’s "Infernal Galop", more widely known as the "Can-Can".
From a rendition of the "Mastermind Sketch" by Comic Paul Zerdin to Diversity's dance numbers as the Sultan of Morocco and his entourage, the production honours the Palladium's status as the home of variety, but does appear to favour too many a set piece over story.
That aside, Dick Whittington is one of the most spectacular pantomimes to have ever graced the stage, with the glitter count alone more than the entire history of pantomime at the venue. Act one's grand finale sees traditional modes of London transport take flight and, with pantomime confirmed for the Palladium next season, Qdos Entertainment’s Pantoland reign appears stronger than ever.
Reviewer: Simon Sladen