Review: Dick Whittington (National Theatre - online)
The National's pantomime is now streaming on YouTube
The pantomime season matters enormously to theatres up and down the land. The popularity of panto as a festive outing makes it both the way that many children are introduced to the life-lasting delights of theatre, and also a huge money spinner for many venues. Its cancellation under most tiers of Covid restriction is a disaster both in commercial and human terms.
For me, however, not so much. The combination of a Methodist upbringing which frowned on endless double-entrendres and a ballet-going habit that meant that The Nutcracker was my seasonal treat of choice means that I have probably missed the panto season less than anyone else in the UK. Yet the fact that the National Theatre had planned to stage Dick Whittington had raised even my Scrooge-like spirits. When tier three clamped down and stopped live performances, it managed to film a preview and is now streaming it for free on its YouTube channel (until December 27 ) which feels like a small Christmas miracle.
Having said that, it's more tinsel than glinting bauble, an amiable entertainment, rather than full-blown glittering sensation. Written by Jude Christian and Cariad Lloyd, and a reworking of a show that first appeared at the Lyric Hammersmith in west London in 2018, it's a bit heavy on slightly laboured political jokes, and rather light on the sheer, sticky, anarchic silliness that panto really requires to thrive. Given that both staging (by Ned Bennett) and audience are socially-distanced, it is a tribute to the heart-breakingly energetic delivery by keen cast and skilful band that it passes a couple of hours pleasantly enough.
The best lines, and certainly the best costumes, fall to dame Dickie Beau as Sarah, kind hearted and permanently smutty owner of the OverEasy takeaway, struggling to make ends meet in a time of Covid, but still resplendent in an eggs and bacon dress with egg boxes as a hat and sausages for a necklace. She gets a risqué joke about Rishi Sunak, a clever but London-centric monologue about love told using the names of Tube stations and a version of Gilbert and Sullivan outlining the changing rules on Covid, all of which go down well. But she also has the over-the-top presence that conjures the true spirit of panto and breaks through all the barriers that are constricting this particular version.
I liked Amy Booth-Steel's wicked Queen Rat as well, though she could do with better lines. Lawrence Hodgson-Mulling is an attractively open-faced Dick (and yes, there are all the jokes you'd expect), and Georgina Onuorah a spirited Alice, with a lovely singing voice. Melanie La Barrie, Cleve September, and Laura Checkley all work fantastically hard to raise the spirits. The adapted pop songs and the music in general, adapted and composed by Benjamin Kwasi Burrell, are a highlight.
The efforts of the entire cast, their pure determination to leap across the vast spaces of the Olivier Theatre to the audience and to us watching us at home, felt like a Christmas present in itself.
Dick Whittington is available on YouTube until 27 December.