The Barbican’s first-ever pantomime, Dick Whittington and His Cat, written by Shopping and Fucking author Mark Ravenhill, opened last night (5 December 2006, previews from 29 November) at the Barbican Theatre (See News, 9 Dec 2005).

Only Fools and HorsesRoger Lloyd Pack made his pantomime dame debut as Sarah the Cook, in a cast that also includes Sam Kelly as Alderman Fitzwarren and Summer Strallen in the title role in the traditional family show directed by Edward Hall.

Overnight critics were disappointed that the pantomime did not live up to expectations, given the calibre of the cast and creative team. However, they still found enough to amuse the youngsters, who were not subjected to Ravenhill’s usual in-yer-face style.

  • Michael Coveney on (2 stars) – “There has been so much publicity emanating from Mark Ravenhill and the Barbican about their pantomime not being shocking or frightening that it comes as a surprise to find such a tame and tepid production at the end of all their ‘back to panto basics’ protestations…. Pantomime is most enjoyable through the personality of its performers…. Roger Lloyd Pack is a superb, lugubrious character actor. But as Sarah the Cook he is a disaster. Pantomime dames are a speciality beyond his range and experience…. The songs… are suitably anodyne in a jolly sort of way, and the fresh and colourful designs are the work of the film, fashion and dance designer Michael Howells.”

  • Michael Billington in the Guardian (3 stars) – “Eyebrows were raised when it was announced that Mark Ravenhill was to write the Barbican's first pantomime. But, if not exactly clean as a whistle, it's a surprisingly traditional show that has all the ingredients of a good panto except the rackety exuberance of a great comic personality. Ravenhill and his director, Edward Hall, certainly respect the rules. Plot is taken seriously…. We also get a proper Principal Boy in the pleasing shape of Summer Strallen…. There's also a villainous King Rat in the malign form of Nickolas Grace who essays the fruity cadences of Olivier's Richard III and ends up as Tony Blair. And we get antiphonal responses, song sheets, transformation scenes and faintly insipid romantic songs just as you'd expect. If anyone is looking for the distinctive hand of Ravenhill, they may find it in some of the patter given to Roger Lloyd Pack as Sarah the Cook…. Most of these jokes pass over the children's heads which may be just as well. But, while Lloyd Pack is an excellent actor and offers a suitably gruesome, toothsome spectacle, I felt his Dame lacked a natural comic presence…. Although it's not big on spectacle, the show is jolly, audience-friendly and combines a sense of London 1378 with a handful of topical gags.”

  • Rhoda Koenig in the Independent – “While Ravenhill's scabrousness might seem to disqualify him as a panto writer, a greater objection was that he's not very funny. His characters are resentful or domineering, but lack the detachment needed to be witty, or the lovable dizziness needed to be amusing. Fortunately, the Barbican has cleverly remedied this failing by pairing him with Edward Hall, who as survivors of A Funny Thing or Once in a Lifetime will know, is nearly as good at directing jokes as Mrs Thatcher was at telling them. This Dick Whittington is a protracted (nearly three-hour) exercise in mediocrity, its tone off-hand and its pacing slack. Lloyd Pack's dame is an old drag queen, gamely getting on with it but not without complaint ("I'm workin' my tits off here")…. Nickolas Grace is an okay King Rat, but neither he nor his minions made my flesh tingle, let alone crawl. The fault here lies less with the actor than with a panto that keeps trying to be a West End musical and ends up a Sixties TV variety show…. Two performances are on a higher level than the rest. Derek Elroy, as Tommy the Cat, has a physical agility and a facial expressiveness greater than most of the speaking actors. And Summer Strallen, in the other title role, is an utter delight to see and hear.”

  • Fiona Mountford in the Evening Standard (3 stars) – “One of the tangential delights of each panto season is watching the unlikely combinations of entertainment world personnel that are formed. After Ian McKellen's very swanky Widow Twankey single-handedly invented ‘posh panto’, perhaps it should come as no genie-in-a-bottle surprise that controversial gay playwright Mark Ravenhill has turned, successfully, to this most family-friendly of genres…. Parents who fear that the entendre count from such a pen may soar above two can rest easy: a line about being ‘tossed on the high seas’ is the pinnacle of risqué-ness. It is rather Ravenhill's innocent love of the ‘It's behind yous’ that is amply evident…. Such a prestigious writer has, inevitably, drawn a high-calibre cast and creative team, and it is here that fleas are discovered on Dick Whittington and his cat as they quest for fame and fortune. Director Edward Hall permits an exaggerated tone of knowingness, as if emphasising that such festive frivolity is not his customary milieu…. Lloyd Pack… fails to establish that crucial rapport with spectators young and old. Hall could have done worse than to import a few old lags from regional rep, to show them how things ought to be done. Elsewhere, Summer Strallen slaps her thighs heartily as Dick, and lends sweet voice to a succession of unmemorable tunes by impressive song-writing names. Hampered by a surfeit of quality: oh yes it is.”

    - by Caroline Ansdell