Janice Dunn and J P McCue
Spa Centre, Leamington Spa
The age-old tale of Dick Whittington is this season's fifth most produced pantomime with productions all over the country charting Dick's quest he seeks fame and fortune in London.
Unlike many other narratives, Richard Whittington was a real person and did become thrice Lord Mayor of London in 1397, 1406 and 1409. As the pantomime story reveals, he also married Alice Fitzwaryn, but today any mention of her father based on the merchant Sir Ivo Fitzwaryn has now almost entirely disappeared with the show's Dame or Principal Girl most likely to be the proprietor of Fitzwarren's Stores.
In Leamington Spa, it is Dame Dolly who rules the roost at Fitzwarren's Fancy Fish Shop and, right from the off, she reveals they must set sail to catch the world's most expensive fish to solve their financial crisis brought about by rats. Sadly, they never quite find the creature and are shipwrecked in a deserted Egyptian Desert where they encounter Queen Rat for the very last time. Having successfully defeated the root of all evil, Dick then takes up the post of Lord Mayor and they all live happily ever after without so much as even looting the Pyramids. In this production, it is Dick's deed of good that brings him wealth as the Lord Mayor, sharing it with his new-found family rather than profiting from plundering other territories' assets. With such a simple tweak of the narrative, Leamington's pantomime eradicates all imperialism.
Janice Dunn and J P McCue's script brings a new sense of vibrancy to the tale first presented as a pantomime in 1814. Not only does it resolve some of the more problematic issues inherited from the Victorian era, it also ensures London's rats receive a strong presence throughout, forever threatening the good citizens of London and reminding the audience of their rotten rodent rule. So frequently do productions ignore the whole premise of the piece, leaving the goodies very little reason to be worried or eaten out of house and home.
As Queen Rat, Denise Pitter mixes smooth and sophisticated with hard rock Biker Chick as her half-rat, half-human despot executes her vermin villainy. The use of two comic sidekicks in Jacob Morris and John Fagan's Ralph and Rolph provides the trio with plenty of opportunity for tomfoolery as Queen Rat's rage increases at their never-ending incompetence.
Kirstie Smith's Fairy Bow Bells brings a big dose of cockney energy to the stage as she watches over Kieran Morris's heroic Dick. Whilst the absence of live music does affect the show's vibrancy, Dick Whittington boasts some impressive vocals, with Georgina Newton's fine-voiced Alice Fitzwarren proving that the days of soppy, sappy and passive Principal Girls are thankfully long gone.
Pantomime's survival is due to its very willingness to evolve and the Spa Centre is lucky to have J P McCue's Dame Dolly driving proceedings. A talented drag artist, McCue's Scottish Dame might just be the secret love child of Barbara Windsor and Sid James: glamorous but gritty, anarchic, yet affectionate, McCue knows how to work an audience and is able to whip up a frenzy in an instant.
Whether waterproofing the Saucy Sally with plenty of slosh, avoiding the gaze of the ghostly drunken sailor or wielding the bra that was made to hold three in "The Twelve Days of Christmas", McHugh's Dame is a fresh, new 21st century interpretation of the age-old damsel in a dress bringing the form up to date bursting with life.
As Dame Dolly's son Silly Simon, Sean Dodds captures the very essence of childhood as his lovable Comic pratfalls his way through proceedings delivering even the oldest of jokes with a sense of freshness. When Dolly explains that she's been getting to know the new city guards by the name of Who, What and I Don't Know, Dodds keeps Abbott and Costello's "Who's on First?" gag running at great speed, with its extension to six names resulting in a glorious payoff.
The set's muted tones form the backdrop to the cast's colourful array of characters with the production's Mission Impossible style safe sequence one of the best around. Chris Gage's acrobatic Tommy the Cat completes the cast in this charming pantomime adventure with a side of sauce.