Dick Whittington and His Cat

Keith and Ben Simmons
Derby LIVE and Paul Holman Associates
Assembly Rooms, Derby
(2011)

Keith and Ben Simmons have now penned six pantos for Derby’s Assembly Rooms. They’ve broken box-office records with their previous productions, so it’s hardly surprising that Derby LIVE and Paul Holman Associates have stuck with a tried and tested formula again.

The father-and-son team have also appeared on stage in previous years but this time they’ve taken a back seat as a new line-up has been brought in.

Top billing here goes to Paul Nicholas, playing the baddie King Rat instead of his usual non-villainous part, and Linda Robson, best known for her role in the Birds of a Feather television sitcom. But it’s some of the actors further down the bill who take the plaudits.

Structurally, Dick Whittington is very similar to last year’s Aladdin. For instance, Mike “Squeaky” McClean’s party piece with four children selected from the audience comes almost right at the end of the evening. Afterwards the company return to take their bows and sing Rockin’ All Over the World—exactly the same as 12 months ago. Dick Whittington has a strange finish, almost an anti-climax, just like Aladdin.

Some of the songs are too old to resonate with younger members of the audience while Simmons and Simmons’s script has just as many tired, well-worn jokes as last year.

Parts of Dick Whittington are sparkling and funny. Other parts are pedestrian and lacklustre.

The show didn’t get off to a good start on press night: Linda Robson showed a lack of enthusiasm for her role as Fairy Bow Bells, appearing either desirous to be somewhere else or reticent to recite the contrived words she was given. However, she settled into the role as the evening wore on.

It was left to McClean, a big hit with the audience, and to a lesser extent Sean McKenzie as Captain Cockle to provide the laughs and lift the panto out of the ordinary.

McClean as Idle Jack is in fact worth the ticket price on his own. He forms an immediate rapport with the audience, knows how to get the maximum humour out of each line and throws in a few ad libs for extra laughs.

A sketch in which Idle Jack is “initiated” into the crew of Captain Cockle’s ship is hilarious, with the two men slapping each other across the face with fish. It’s not original but very funny.

Yet even that is eclipsed by a scene involving Dick (Luke Roberts), Sarah the Cook (Ian Good) and Alderman Fitzwarren (Andrew Haynes) as well as Idle Jack, Captain Cockle and Fairy Bow Bells. Each proclaims his or her preference for being a sportsperson: the timing is impeccable and the result leaves you with aching sides.

Returning to Derby after performing in Aladdin last year are Good who’s a steady hand as the dame and Roberts, pleasant but cheesy as Dick.

Nicholas gets plenty of boos as King Rat and there pleasing contributions from Sarah Accomando as Alice and Ellie Stevenson as Tommy the Cat.

An under-the-sea puppet sequence by Derby-based Mark Two Character Productions goes down well, particularly with children.

On the whole, though, Dick Whittington and His Cat is similar in many ways to Aladdin: a good show but lacking that little bit of magic to make it great.

Dick Whittington and His Cat runs until 8th January

Reviewer: Steve Orme