The Palladium, London – until 14 January 2018
Following critical and commercial success with last year’s Cinderella, QDOS Entertainment have again invested millions to make Dick Whittington the biggest, boldest and glitziest pantomime on the London circuit with what looks like a degree of overkill, taking a sledgehammer to crush a rat perhaps.
Alan McHugh’s script covers all the bases in the narrative – Dick meets Alice, is charged with ridding London of rats, is falsely charged with theft, goes to Morocco, comes back a hero and is hailed Lord Mayor – but the plot is subsumed to the procession of ‘turns’ hired to do their own excellent thing. It’s normal in a pantomime to have a comedian, but here there are three – Julian Clary’s campery, Gary Wilmot’s clowning, Paul Zerdin’s ventriloquy – as well as Elaine Paige’s veteran vocals, and street dancer Ashley Banjo and his troupe Diversity who are rather oddly interposed as the Sultan and his bodyguards
This is an extraordinarily boldly costumed show which must have kept lurex manufacturers on overtime for months: at every scene change the 22-strong ensemble appears in a different saturated hue, with elaborate hats and a tonnage of feathers, and there are flashes of theatrical wit like in Fitzwarren’s sweetshop where mannequins pay homage to the ‘Beautiful Girls’ in Follies – or possibly ‘Springtime for Hitler’ – with headdresses and appendages made from giant liquorice allsorts.
As the Spirit of the Bells Julian Clary’s costumes are so elaborate with crystalline accessories they almost hamper his movement – even if he doesn’t need any excuse not to do choreography because he’s nearly as bad at is as he is at singing although he’d defy you to point it out. But he’s endlessly, wickedly funny especially at the expense of Elaine Paige who he refers to constantly as E.T. His bone dry delivery, feigning ennui at the whole process is perfectly timed.
There are a lot of Dick jokes, and a surprising number of very old jokes which haven’t been brushed up for 2017: political topicality is limited to one glancing reference each to Brexit, Trump and Mrs May. The audience love the old stagers – Nigel Havers is game for a laugh as a sort of self-propelled running gag about wanting a bigger part and being too old for it. Paige is largely phoning it in but the parodies of her greatest hits are well written, and Wilmot reminds you that he is every bit as much a musical theatre performer as a comedian when the routine he does naming every tube station to the tune of the can-can is the hit of the show.
But despite being fourth on the bill – and this really is a variety show – the best performer is the ventriloquist Paul Zerdin, British winner of America’s Got Talent. Both his routine with his boy dummy Sam, and the words he puts in the mouths of the volunteer kiddies up on stage are terrific, and he’s the closest this rather strange confection comes to traditional pantomime.
There is no top over which this production won’t go, whether it’s the rich innuendo in Clary’s script, or the tremendous mechanical effects of an animatronic giant rat, flying London bus or shipwreck where Clary and an otherwise underused Charlie Stemp as Dick parody ‘My Heart Will Go On’ from ‘Titanic’ while sailing over the heads of the audience.
At this point any visiting producer with a regional pantomime budget must have lost the will to live.