Theatre Royal Stratford East's panto, ''Dick Whittington'', opened last week
There is nowhere better to see a pantomime than Stratford East: perfect Victorian theatre, brilliant FOH staff, heaving bar, up-for-it audience, the composer, Robert Hyman, in the pit with two other "live" (well, let's say they're not half-dead) musicians, a journey to the moon (made of cheese) and a Boom Town king rat.
Kerry Michael's lively production – brilliantly designed by Jenny Tiramani and Harriet Barsby – re-jigs the story as a mayoral contest (good against evil) and supplies a good stream of infectious rap and pop musical numbers, ensuring that Dick and Alice are reunited, even though they never lose sight of the main theatrical purpose: they must listen to the bells, not the politicians, nor the family.
The Stratford panto's never one for the purists – which panto ever is since the demise of the Players Theatre burlesques? – but it's definitely a locally tilted subversive gas. The opening proceedings are dominated by Michael Bertenshaw's King Rat, a wannabe mayor with a past as a stand-up chameleon; Dick (Ashley Gerlach) and his cool cat – Tony Jayawardena in a marmalade body suit – are re-defined as a cross-talk support double-act. And then the plot explodes.
Delroy Atkinson's energetic, original and very funny Shirley the Cook intervenes with news of cheese craters, and the rocket takes off to the moon. There's nothing much going on there, either, so human relationships are resumed with the same old sense of routine. How we get there, and through so many dips and craters, remains a matter of wonder and mystery.
For the pantomime is a thinly disguised metaphor of our domestic status and future prospects. Trish Cooke's book and lyrics strike straight to the heart of the story and there's one really great company number when we all join in with a hymn to Bow Bells, and the audience is inevitably enlisted as a corporation of rat-catchers.
There's one really great company number when we all join in with a hymn to Bow Bells, and the audience is inevitably enlisted as a corporation of rat-catchers. The trip to the moon is accompanied by a pop digest of songs from David Bowie to Elton John and the stage is in a permanent state of flux between a neighbourhood knees-up and a fantasy trip to outer space, the perfect social compromise.