Dick Whittington

Andrew Pollard and Kieran Buckeridge
Salisbury Playhouse Productions
Salisbury Playhouse

Tom Oakley and Ella Vale as Dick Whittington and His Cat Credit: Robert Workman
Kieran Buckeridge as Mrs Wilhelmina Whittington Credit: Robert Workman
Gemma Wardle as the Good Fairy Credit: Robert Workman

I suppose it’s rather appealing, in these recession-hit times, that story of a penniless lad making his way to London and becoming filthy rich. And if that isn’t enough to warm the cockles, something warm and cuddly, like the addition of a large fluffy cat, should do the trick.

This is a home-grown production, about as home-grown as you can get. It’s written by Andrew Pollard, who also wrote the lyrics, along with Kieran Buckeridge, who wrote the music as well as playing Mrs Wilhelmina Whittington, Dick’s mother.

The references to Salisbury abound, including a cathedral with half-finished spire. It will be completed, presumably, by Dick’s generosity, in the final scene, so no concessions to historical fact, then. And I can’t imagine many costume makers have been faced with the task of dressing a cast member as a cathedral, so there you are. Full marks for effort.

We’re back in the fifties. Dick (Tom Oakley) has lost his job and plans to go to London where he will fall in love with Alice Fitzwarren (Laura Matthews), a rather petulant and, judging by her array of upmarket carrier bags, extravagant young lady. We meet her father, Alderman Fitzwarren, a prosperous cheesemaker with a propensity for Cockney rhyming slang. Then there’s the good fairy, of course (Gemma Wardle) who will emerge later as Flo Mingo, queen of a tropical island, and the dastardly King Rat (Richard Hurst) who has honed his sneer and contemptuous swing of coat-tails to a fine art.

And Tabby the cat (Ella Vale)? Not large and fluffy, but dainty and lithe. No cat-mask; just a tabby-patterned body stocking. Ella Vane has watched cats with close attention and translated their gestures and movements as she interacts with Dick and, particularly, the chorus of six rats, so that we are totally convinced—and enchanted. A joy to watch, as is the chorus of six children, adding their own magic to the spectacle.

Being pantomime, all the traditional elements are here—the rhyming couplets, the singling out of audience members with birthdays or in school parties for special mention and the ‘He’s behind you!’ sequence (in this case ‘He’ being a rather cuddly looking gorilla). Then there’s the ‘Oh, yes he is,’ ‘Oh no he’s not,’ interaction and the inevitable song-sheet, with its division of the audience into two halves in order to encourage competition.

There are some rather unexpected twists of plot in part two. Elvis Presley—King Rat in disguise—appearing on the tropical island where their ship has inadvertently landed, for instance, and Dick rather unconvincingly winning a vast fortune from a one-armed bandit rather than earning it through Tabby’s efforts as normally happens in the story.

Ah yes, the Dame. I hadn’t forgotten. Rather difficult to forget, in fact, with his brilliant orange hair piled high and bright turquoise dress. He wrote the music and some of the lyrics as well. A busy man. A pity he wasn’t able, as his mother, to match Dick’s splendid Wiltshire accent, with all those references to Salisbury. In Wiltshire.

And Dames are supposed to behave badly, aren’t they? But they should be rather funnier than this one. Manic does not necessarily mean funny. The music didn’t help either. Unfamiliar tunes, played too loudly, and rather too many of them.

They are a talented lot at the Playhouse and work extremely hard, but just seven main parts and half a dozen kids? They did well to achieve the standard they did.

Salisbury Playhouse has given us some outstandingly good productions this year, several worthy of transfer to Shaftesbury Avenue and the like.

I’m afraid I would find it quite difficult to count this Dick Whittington among them.

Reviewer: Anne Hill