If there is one sure sign that Christmas has truly arrived, it’s the inescapable onslaught of the pantomime season. Theatres across the country ring to the shouts of “he’s behind you”, the boos and hisses, and the singalong family favourites. Often acclaimed as the UK’s biggest pantomime, Birmingham Hippodrome present a first class production every single year, and 2016 is no exception. The magical pantomime adventure Dick Whittington stars John Barrowman as the eponymous hero, alongside Steve McFadden (King Rat), Jodie Prenger (Fairy Bowbells) and The Krankies.
John Barrowman is endearing as Dick Whittington; his youthful appearance and boundless energy belying his age to give a believable interpretation of the young aspiring champion. Barrowman gives a flawless vocal performance in “Shut Up And Dance” and “Wrapped Up”, showcasing his dance skills and giving off an easy, charismatic charm. Barrowman engages the audience from the outset, breaking the fourth wall to acknowledge that this is his third panto at the Hippodrome but, no, he still has not perfected the Brummie accent.
To my great surprise, I really enjoyed the performances given by both members of The Krankies. Long-suffering, gruff Ian (Councillor Krankie) is the perfect comic foil to Janette’s wee Jimmy Krankie. Incredibly, the 68 year old Janette steals every scene she is in with her hilarious, if slightly odd, persona as the young schoolboy fond of crude humour. She is carried upside down, stripped to her pants, dresses as Ozzie Osbourne and cavorts in a Madonna-esque leotard in a never-ending series of wacky sketches, her impish smile and infectious giggle only adding to the hilarity of her performance.
Both Jodie Prenger (Fairy Bowbells) and Danielle Hope (Alice) give sublime vocal performances – despite having very little to do. Andrew Ryan is a phenomenal pantomime dame as Sarah The Cook. An absolute professional, Ryan has the glamour and elegance of a top drag queen when he performs an astonishingly polished burlesque striptease.
Performance of the night must go to Matt Slack, who steals the show as Idle Jack. There is seemingly no end to Slack’s comic talents. From a fiendishly fast Brummie rap, to a range of impressions from Michael McIntyre to Len Goodman, the spectacularly timed DVD sketch and a series of cleverly mimed pop songs which must be seen to be believed, it’s clear to see why Slack is an enduring favourite with Birmingham audiences.
The secret to Dick Whittington’s success lies in the rapport and camaraderie between the cast members. They bounce off one another (sometimes literally), flinging witticisms back and forth, diverting further and further from the script, improvising sharp jokes with stunning speed, until every actor finally corpses and breaks down in a fit of the giggles. Every joke feels new and exciting. The cast’s evident enjoyment translates to the audience, who have an absolute ball laughing along with the actors.
Panto is traditionally more child orientated, yet Dick Whittington has possibly more jokes for the adults in the audience. Producer and director Michael Harrison pushes the boundaries of family-friendly entertainment as far as he can, with a flurry of innuendo, flirtatious humour and sharp political points that has every grown-up laughing just as uproariously as the children.
It’s not all stunning performances and quick humour, for where would a pantomime be without some stunning special effects? The audience don 3D glasses in Act 2 for an underwater thriller (from Whizzbang 3D Productions) that produces spontaneous “oohs”, “aahs” and quite a few shrieks as a giant shark seems to burst forth from the screen. Rudolph and Santa’s sleigh magically soar out over the audience in the best flying effect I have ever experienced, including a spectacular 360 degree roll. The West End production of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang should take note!
Dick Whittington is a mad-cap rollercoaster adventure that leaves you crying with laughter. The ingenuity of the production, sublime performances from the all-star cast and frankly audacious humour are the ultimate recipe for a five star festive treat.
Dick Whittington is at Birmingham Hippodrome until Sunday 29 January and tickets are available here.