Dick Whittington

Jack Counsel
Yvonne Arnaud Theatre
The Yvonne Arnaud, Guildford

The cast of Dick Whittington Credit: Craig Fuller
Peter Gordon, James Merry and Robbie Scott - 12 Days of Lockdown Credit: Craig Fuller
Kit Hesketh-Harvey as King Rat Credit: Craig Fuller

Christmas music, a grand set and a buzzing auditorium full of Scouts can only mean one thing: panto is back at Guildford’s Yvonne Arnaud!

There’s a comfort in going to see a panto at the Arnaud with an in-house team that delicately balance modernisation with tradition. This year, it’s the often spoofed Dick Whittington and in a delightful update to the tale King Rat has taken over London through his extensive business empire including Ratazon and Rataroo. He’s decimated the high street and Alice Fitzwarren’s shop is next. Enter Dick Whittington, our wide-eyed hero from Gloucestershire (and his companion Tomi the cat) who dreams of improving customer service and becoming Lord Mayor of London. Comedy, romance, slapstick and even a shipwreck ensue with Fairy Bowbells doing her best to help our hero with Sally the Cook and Idle Jack along for the ride.

After some scene setting from Elizabeth Rowe’s cheeky and charming Fairy Bowbells, it’s time for the rest of the cast to be revealed and the show opens with a mash-up of "London is London" and "London is calling". The main characters are ably supported by an adult ensemble made up of final year Guildford School of Acting students. The group of six sing and dance their way through the show with gusto, bringing sparkles of individuality whether they be umbrella-wielding Londoners, sailors or rats. Special mention to costume designer Nany Surman for creating such cute and comical rat costumes—even if they are meant to be on the side of the baddie! It was also great to see the ensemble open act two giving TikTok sensation Wellerman the panto treatment but in a context that actually made sense.

Clad in black and with a whip-like tail, King Rat marks Kit Hesketh-Harvey’s 9th Arnaud pantomime and his signature sarcasm and throwaway delivery is in full force, particularly when interacting with the audience. Always pushing the envelope of the family friendly script, he manages to inject some eyebrow-raising moments of innuendo through well-delivered ad-libs that definitely gave the adults some laughs. Relishing the booing, it was clear that he was having a devilish time.

His opponents Robbie Scott and Maya Elliott are a lovely Dick Whittington and Alice Fitzwarren: earnest, innocent and sincere without being slushy. In fact, the romance is rather downplayed with the serious and business-minded Alice intent on saving her business. I’ve never known a whiteboard to feature so heavily in a panto!

Returning for his 15th Guildford panto is local favourite Peter Gordon, who slips into the role of Sally the cook with ease—outlandish costumes, bad jokes and plenty of pouting included. As his foil, the fantastic Jamie Brook is missed, but Guildford newcomer James Merry (best known for CBeebies' Waffle the Wonderdog) confidently steps into the role of the ever-sleepy Idle Jack. The two have good chemistry and I’m sure their rhythm and banter will continue to develop as the run settles.

Where would King Rat and Dick be without their furry sidekicks? As Ratfink and Spartacus, Robert Donnelly and Amiyah are a joy to watch and far too loveable to be taken serious as villains even if they do follow their master’s wishes without complaint and don’t seem to mind corrupting a ballot box or two. In the role of Tomi, Dick’s talking cat, Jake Ibelo is slightly underused but is clearly giving it his all as the streetwise cat, occasionally channelling a young Del Boy and shining in numbers such as "The boys are back in town" and "Better When I’m Dancin’".

Jack Counsel’s well-paced script allows for plenty of audience interaction and there are as many opportunities as you’d hope for / expect including "he’s behind you" and for this plot “Wake up Jack we need you back.” There’s no bench scene for 2021 but instead the audience are treated to a slosh scene with Sally and Idle Jack as well as the highly anticipated "12 days of" which is fittingly renamed "12 days of lockdown". Slips, trips and custard pies galore!

And of course there's a house song—an extremely competitive one at that. Idle Jack's half of the audience included most of the Scouts whereas Fairy Bowbells had the luck of quite a few enthusiastic Guildford School of Acting students. Who won? It was genuinely hard to know.

Despite a slightly rushed ending and some minor sound issues, this is a family friendly extravaganza that is bound to put a smile on the face of all age groups between now and January.

Festive, funny and even featuring a UV underwater scene—there’s something for everyone in this classic retelling.

Reviewer: Amy Yorston