It must have seemed like a great idea at the time – secure controversial playwright Mark Ravenhill to write the Barbican’s Christmas panto, Dick Whittington and his Cat.
But what a nightmare for the Barbican’s marketing department which is now faced with the task of persuading the public that this output from the man whose most famous play is called Shopping and Fucking is suitable family fare.
And judging by the poor numbers on the show’s first Friday, they haven’t been altogether successful even though the show is indeed a traditional panto in every respect – principal boy, pantomime dame, villain, slapstick scene, shipwreck scene, audience singalong, birthday announcements.
Sadly, its greatest achievement is to make you realise just what a difficult genre the panto is to master (far harder than tragedy, in Andrew’s humble opinion). A good panto walks a difficult tightrope, giving the kids a theatrical feast to gorge themselves on while quietly dropping topical or risque titbits into the mouths of the adults.
It’s a path that Dick Whittington fails to tread. There are too many titbits for the adults and while some are quite amusing (Nikolas Grace’s King Rat in Tony Blair mode; the inclusion in the main love song of Prince Charles’s famous “Love. Whatever love is” epigram) the result was that whole sections were often met with bemused silence from the kids in the audience.
Sadly, one of the biggest problems is the casting of Roger Lloyd Pack (Owen in The Vicar of Dibley, Trigger in Only Fools and Horses) as pantomime dame Sarah the Cook He gives it a good fist, but he’s clearly not confident in the role and throws away a lot of his lines.
The person who seems most at home in all this is Sam Kelly as Alderman Fitzwarren. He looks as though he’s having a great time and was born to play panto. Ravenhill has written swathes of amusing alliterative sentences for him. But sadly alliteration doesn’t seem to be the average nine year old’s idea of entertainment.
To be fair, it all warmed up in the second half. Maybe the kids had been knocking back booze at the bar in the intermission but not least because the technical sound problems which plagued the first half seemed to have been mostly resolved. Even so, if you’re sitting in the front row of the stalls (as Andrew was) you should really be able to hear every word. [Addendum: I have been righly chastised By “Biddy” for not pointing out that this was a preview]
By far the most amusing scene for Andrew was the early scene set in a toyshop in which the Queen (our Queen, that is) comes in to try out some water pistols which results in a massive soaking for those in the front rows of the stalls.
Lloyd Pack closes the show a twist on the old gag: “If you enjoyed yourselves, tell all your friends. If you didn’t my name is Serena McKellen and this is the Old Vic”. But was it Andrew’s imagination or was this line delivered with a tinge of earnestness hitherto unseen in his performance?