Venue: The Signal Box Theatre at the National Railway Museum, York.
Berwick Kaler’s pantomimes are a Yorkshire institution. For thirty-seven years, he has written and starred in the York Theatre Royal’s Christmas productions. When renovations of the theatre meant the traditional panto couldn’t take place in its usual home, there were fears the show wouldn’t go on. Fortunately, the enterprising production team had a solution – a 1000 seat theatre beside the National Railway Museum. A pantomime in a giant tent perhaps ought not to work; especially one with a rail track through the middle to bring on the set. But, thanks to the hard work of all involved, it’s made for a unique show that is fantastically involving for all ages.
As you may guess, Dick Whittington (and his meerkat) doesn’t exactly adhere to the original story; it’s more of an excuse for a series of hilarious set pieces, and is the better for it. Beginning in London, the action quickly moves to Herman Vermin’s bunker where he addresses his army of rats, before eventually ending up in an unexpectedly foreign land with resident Neanderthals… It’s an old tale, but the creativity demonstrated by Kaler’s script is admirable; the traditional pantomime standards are there, yet with a special twist.
The production creates a distinctive atmosphere, primarily due to the script clearly being tailored to the new venue. The practicalities of staging a pantomime with half the audience constantly ‘behind you’ (the traverse setting has 500 people either side of the stage) means the cast work twice as hard to play to all parts of the ‘house’. Every comic opportunity from the change of location is deftly exploited; the ad-libs surrounding the crew pushing the set along the central rail line raised the biggest laughs of the evening. Whilst a clever underwater UV sequence, film (with special guest appearances) and a hot tub scene that must be seen to be believed easily mitigate the loss of the customary water/slosh scene.
The show generously gives everyone in the energetic company a moment to shine. David Leonard (Herman Vermin) reasserts himself as the finest pantomime villain around: throwing himself into every moment with a fine balance between sinister threat and comedy. The ever-youthful Suzy Cooper (Charlotte Cheapskate) and ridiculously lively Martin Barrass (Willy and Mayor Cheapskate) show with ease why they remain popular fixtures in the Theatre Royal’s pantos year after year. Meanwhile, Kaler is on peerless form as Paloma Polony; the reciprocal love between him and his loyal audience is clear from his opening cry of “me babbies, me bairns”. He truly is the best dame around.
Special mention must be made for Mark Walters, the set and costume designer. His ingenious set designs transport those sitting in the glorified Yorkshire tent across the world in a matter of moments. Scenes and locations transition ease, thanks to the non-stop stage crew who push the trucks along the stage, to the merciless jibes of Kaler and the rest of the cast (all in good spirits, of course).
Dick Whittington (and his meerkat) is the pantomime that, against the odds, has utilised the best of the Theatre Royal’s creative talent. The entire cast, aided by a hilarious script and inventive design work, seem energised by their new surroundings, which proves infectious for the audience. The effort clearly invested into making a memorable production has paid off and created a triumphant once-in-a-lifetime theatre experience. No matter what your age, you’ll love this show.