Dick Whittington and His Cat
Who'd have thought it? Mark Ravenhill, one of the finest exponents of In-Yer-Face theatre and best known for a play whose title is rarely, if ever printed in full, has been chosen by the Barbican to charm little children, while at the same time keeping their parents happy.
Ravenhill might have been an unexpected choice to write the Barbican's 2006 pantomime but with his tremendous sense of humour, happily mixing the corny and sophisticated, he triumphs.
Director Edward Hall is an expert in cross-dressing casts, indeed his Propeller Company regularly does Shakespeare without a woman in sight. In this case, his two leading performers, Summer Strallen as the boyish charmer who will eventually become Lord Mayor of London and Roger Lloyd Pack playing flirtatious but very glamorous Sarah the Cook, ham it up like mad wearing what might have been each other's clothing.
Miss Strallen portrays Dick Whittington, a lad from Gloucestershire who is told by a charmingly chubby cockney fairy (hardly a first for the playwright) played by Debbie Chazen, that fame and fortune awaits him in London.
His cat, Derek Elroy's Tommy, is granted the magical powers and, for whatever reason, when he is not smiting London's rats with impressive martial-arts skills, spends the whole evening doing impressions of an enthusiastic wicketkeeper.
On his arrival in London, Dick immediately discovers two imperatives. One is to rid a terrified City of those rats, led by a sinister and very sibilant King Rat played by Nickolas Grace, and the other is to win the hand of the ash blonde, Pre-Raphaelite beauty Alice Fitzwarren.
They would certainly make a great couple. The principal boy is nothing less than thigh-slappingly handsome in his boots, which reach all way to those thighs and his tunic which does not. Caroline Sheen plays his amour as a pretty little thing with a comically expressive face.
Our hero's path is blocked by Alice's father, the amazingly, amusingly, alliterative Alderman Fitzwarren played by panto expert Sam Kelly. He unreasonably insists that any son-in-law of his must not only become a millionaire (and this is 1378 when £1 million meant something) but also Lord Mayor of London.
Where any sensible lad would just have moved on to the next beauty with knee-length hair, Dick after joining Alice in a charming duet "Like You", one of the few memorable songs of a rather bland musical evening, is smitten. However, the path of true love needs a few by-ways and with the aid of King Rat Dick suddenly finds himself banished as a burglar.
This is panto though, and aided by Sarah, Tommy and the narcoleptic Totally Lazy Jack, a Market Boy played by Danny Worters who recently had a similar role at the National, albeit 700 years later, Dick effortlessly wins the day and the girl. Not only that but he is well set to become Lord Mayor of London not once but three times as his fairy foretells.
Mark Ravenhill and Edward Hall have ensured that this new version of an old classic has greater sophistication and modernity than is sometimes found in genre with massive appeal to adults as well as children. Even so, it does not eschew the necessary entertainments with sweet-throwing, communal singing and kids on stage, as well as the newer-fangled powerful water pistols to soak the punters.
The little ones certainly have a great time and, on press night, a tiny blonde haired girl in Row P, who cannot have been more than seven, threatened to burst a blood vessel with hecklings, behind yous and even on occasion high-pitched screams.
With their background in musicals rather than TV soaps, Mesdames Strallen and Sheen are ideal for this kind of work with ability as both actors and singers. They are well complemented by those high-quality comedians Sam Kelly and Roger Lloyd Pack, the latter carrying a big burden with a large role and many glamorous costumes to get into and out of.
This is generally an extremely entertaining and attractive evening, with the action taking place within Michael Howells' cardboard cut-out sets and the characters dressed in vibrant colours.
This is the kind of pantomime that could even win over those who still dread such events after bad childhood experiences, thanks to a cracking script packed with both visual and verbal humour delivered almost without exception with the greatest panache. If you only go to one pantomime this year, make it the In-Yer-Face one.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher