”Dick Whittington” at Birmingham Hippodrome – review

Andrew Ryan and Matt Slack in Dick Whittington
Andrew Ryan and Matt Slack in Dick Whittington
© Paul Coltas
Birmingham Hippodrome’s panto may be the last to open each year but it is always worth waiting for – and this Christmas, it doesn’t disappoint with a dazzling show packed with laughs.

The production is big on spectacle with some impressive special effects including a giant King Rat whose menacing red eyes and sharp teeth gleam into the auditorium and a double-decker bus that takes to the skies to transport Dick back to London in his quest to become Lord Mayor.

Not that the story of Dick Whittington is particularly central to the show – the plot is thin on the ground with the emphasis firmly on the comedy routines, gags, songs and general silliness rather than any strong narrative element.

Birmingham favourite Matt Slack returns for his ninth pantomime at the city’s Hippodrome Theatre. While previously he has been the Silly Billy or the Wishee Washee to a leading man, this time round he has the titular role. This gives him plenty of stage time for a host of jokes and sketches – sometimes in tandem with another hapless cast member and often solo.

Slack knows what the audiences want and serves up the laughs in bucketloads – indulging in stories, sketches and a great routine in which he undertakes impersonations of a host of personalities including John Bishop, David Attenborough and Joe Pasquale.

There is no doubt that Birmingham audiences have come to love Slack but there is a risk that being both lead and comic foil, and being the focus for the majority of the show, he overshadows the other cast members and the production fails to capitalise on the star line-up it has secured.

Marti Pellow in Dick Whittington
Marti Pellow in Dick Whittington
© Paul Coltas

Marti Pellow as the evil Ratman has a couple of good songs but there is plenty more scope to bring him on stage and give him additional menace – if only to provide the audiences a chance to boo the baddie. Suzanne Shaw is sorely under-used in the role of Alice Fitzwarren. We saw her shine as Cinderella in the Hippodrome panto five years ago and she has plenty of presence as a singer and dancer. Yet as Alice, she has little opportunity to do either.

Dr Ranj provides the glitz as the Spirit of the Bells, the Fairy Godmother-like character who helps Dick achieve his dreams. Clad from head to foot in sparkling silver with his magic snowflake wand, Ranj is a thoroughly loveable character who is, not surprisingly, the butt of lots of medical jokes.

Andrew Ryan returns as the Dame in some gloriously outrageous costumes and wigs to deliver plenty of double entendres and play up members of the audience. And Doreen Tipton’s Doreen the Cat plays on the joke she is the laziest cat in town – not once does she make any real effort to catch a rat.

Written by Slack and Alan McHugh, there is a lot of adult humour in this production, helped by the fact Slack is playing a character called Dick, and while that nod to the grown-ups is a long-established panto tradition, the team need to be careful it doesn’t go too far for some families.

Ian Westbrook’s sets are packed full of colour and character, recreating the inside of the Fitzwarren’s sweet shop, the streets of London and the Ratman’s Palace. Teresa Nalton’s costumes are equally bold and imaginative, particularly in the sweet shop where cast members are dressed up as giant gingerbread figures and Liquorice Allsorts.

Additional spectacle is provided by the fire dancing duo Dave Knox and Grace Billings whose pyrotechnic act is so impressive we forgive the fact it is shoehorned into the story and clearly there just to amaze us.

Directed and produced by Michael Harrison, Birmingham Hippodrome’s panto is a grand finale for the festive season in the city. Bursting with fun, laughter and wow factor, it’s a cracker.