The Opera House, Manchester
Written by Alan McHugh with additional material by The Krankies
Directed by Michael Gyngell
This Qdos Entertainment production of Dick Whittington certainly delivers as a visually spectacular festive theatre trip. It takes traditional panto and gives it a huge 21st century makeover. Dick first appears when launched on stage in a jetpack and there are 3D special effects and mind blowing visual creations from The Twins FX.
This is still bright, loud and colourful pantomime but the narrative is more sound bites than traditional storytelling. It keeps many of the traditional characters but ditches the panto dame and OTT costumes for a hybrid Principal Boy/Panto Dame in the form of John Barrowman in the tightest velvet trousers and skimpiest white shorts. This Dick is possibly more focused on maintaining his reputation as the biggest Dick in Panto than he is on saving London from a plague of rats!!
The other major characters this production is built around are the Seventies comedy duo The Krankies. Ian Tough as Councillor Krankie and his wife Janette Tough as his son Jimmy who reprise their famous despairing father/naughty son doubleact. This unlikely pairing with John Barrowman is incredibly successful and creates a comedy masterclass in comic timing and ad libbing. Apparently Barrowman will only do Panto if The Krankies are on the bill and this is their seventh successful appearance together. They are quite simply a joy to watch, as the on stage chemistry particularly with Barrowman and Janette Tough is achingly funny. The banter often feels genuinely unscripted and frequently veers from naughty to positively blue- this is a trio singing from the same rather smutty songsheet.
The other main characters are all strong performances with Jacqueline Hughes delivering a delightful The Spirit of Bow Bells and Lauren Hampton as a sweet and winsome Alice. Phil Corbitt is a suitably nasty villain as King Rat and provides lots traditional boos and hisses. Sadly the rest of the cast are underused and although we have Ryan Kayode as a Manchester/Cheshire cat complete with local accent we don’t see enough of Dick’s famous sidekick.
A lot of the audience are here for Panto at Christmas but this is very much a vehicle for John Barrowman with lots of references to iconic shows such as Dr Who and Arrow. In the ghost scene he even wears a cheeky skimpy onesie that’s clearly inspired by The Tardis. This combined with numerous references to his sexuality mean that it is impossible to ever fully suspend reality and simply see Dick Whittington on stage.
There are lots of catchy songs delivered with loads of energy. Barrowman baritone voice is unsurprisingly excellent throughout while Janette Tough singing is unsurprisingly awful throughout and well used for comic effect. Her turn as MacDonna in conical bra and G string may be the oddest thing I’ve ever seen on stage but the goodwill she creates makes it strangely acceptable.
The special effects are high impact and give this show an added memorable dimension. The 3D underwater scene was genuinely scary and exciting. The big events in each Act were thrilling for all ages. Rudolph and his sleigh fly out over the audience and turn upside down with Dick seemingly inches from the audience in the stalls. Later we see Wee Jimmy in the mouth of a gigantic shark shooting out over the stage and into the audience.
There are lots of panto positives in this production. The underwater version of The Twelve Days of Christmas is pure silliness and includes lots of super soaker action aimed at the audience. The costumes for the dancers are extravagant and sometimes really beautiful such as in the winter scene. However there are also points where this panto veets off being family friendly fun and dips into gasp-out- loud smuttiness. I’m sure some of this will go right past the younger audience but for older children there may be awkward q&a’s for red faced parents.
At OPERA HOUSE until Sunday Jan 7th 2018