Jamie Alexander Wilson
Stag Theatre, Sevenoaks
In 2009, pantomime returned to the Stag Theatre, Sevenoaks and has since created a legacy at the venue ensuring its survival and securing its position at the heart of the community.
Dick Whittington was The Stag's first pantomime ten years ago and takes to the stage once more in the venue's anniversary year along with many a familiar face including Ant Payne, Jasette Amos and Lucy Reed.
After last year's success in Snow White, Danny Beard also returns in one of the most hotly talked about roles of the season: The Spirit of London.
Many newspapers have reported that Beard constitutes the genre's first gender-fluid Dame; however, the Spirit bears no resemblance to the cross-dressed damsel, who is entirely absent from this production. Instead, the role is the latest in a line of Immortals à la Julian Clary's seasonal Spirits, whose magic rules over proceedings and provides plenty of camp fun.
One of the problems with the role's gender fluidity is that the Spirit becomes the subject of many a joke as characters struggle to comprehend such a concept. Rather than celebrate diversity, such writing further alienates the character and enforces a sense of otherness.
Much of the show's laughter is orchestrated by Payne as Silly Billy. A comedic bundle of fun, Payne delivers his material with great energy, but is often left floundering on the stage without a comic sparring partner. Usual patter reserved for the Comic and Dame is distributed between the rest of the cast with Payne's opening spot being fed by Reed's Alice leaving it somewhat cold.
Without a Dame, the show has no engine to drive it on, ignite the audience or regulate the other performers when they step out of line. Throughout the marathon three hours of entertainment, many cast members engage in self-indulgent corpsing or games which leave it plod plod plodding along.
Too many musical numbers don't help the situation, but the main issues lie in Jamie Alexander Wilson's script and direction, which are both slow and uneven. An innuendo-laden "Twelve Days of Christmas" stutters and stalls in amongst Dick Whittington's cacophony of phallic jokes and tumbleweed, which is a shame as a sequence in which Billy and Alice attempt to teach Dick cockney rhyming slang offers shades of comic genius.
Dick Whittington has always been a title favoured by scenic artists on account of its many locations and this year The Stag's stage sees screens replace sets. Simon Cosson's stunning animations transport the audience from the docks at Cheapside to underground secret sewers, aboard a sea-faring ship and the tropical island of Bermuda, which during the second act becomes a mixed bag of Mexico, Morocco and the Middle East increasing notions of Orientalism. The advantage of animation is that audiences can be transported in an instant and the set can respond to the action it frames, whilst giving the production a contemporary computer-game-meets-music-video feel.
A kaleidoscope of colour, the show's scenery is complemented by a glittering array of costumes courtesy of James Mciver that fill the stage and bring some sparkle to a show all about seeking fame and fortune.
The addition of a gospel choir in the form of the Council of London lifts the production with their rich tones soothing the soul as they help Dominic Harbison's perfectly executed Principal Boy become thrice Lord Mayor of London.
Whilst not a bumper year for The Stag, perhaps 2019's Aladdin will take the venue into its next decade of pantomime full of life with a little help from a magical Genie.
Reviewer: Simon Sladen