There are some things you just don’t expect in the theatre: Harold Pinter writing a knockabout farce, or Alan Ayckbourn penning a grim tale set on a Glasgow council estate. So it’s surprising to learn that, in his latest piece, Mark Ravenhill has made a bit of a departure from the kind of work that has made him famous. The man whose plays Shopping and Fucking and Some Explicit Polaroids are the epitome of savage social drama has now turned his hand to pantomime.

His new version of Dick Whittington and his Cat will be the first panto to be staged at the Barbican in London and Ravenhill is excited about it. “I’ve always loved pantomime,” he says. “It was the first experience of theatre I had and I thought it was amazing – just the combination of songs and spectacle and slapstick.” He freely admits that his previous plays, with their graphic depictions of drug abuse, violence and rape, don’t make him an obvious person to create a piece of light family entertainment. But he is adamant that he takes this commitment seriously.

“What I wanted to do absolutely was write a family pantomime,” he says. “There is a kind of innocence to it that I really like.” He stresses that this isn’t “a parody of pantomime; it isn’t a kind of blue pantomime”.

Ravenhill’s reputation, however, has made the Barbican’s marketing department coy. His biography on its website refers only to the success of his “first play”: the F word was unsuited to the image they wanted to project. Ravenhill laughs. “They were in a bit of a quandary about that,” he says, adding, almost hopefully, that most of the show’s target audience “won’t have heard of any other play that I have written, and in pantomime the writer doesn’t matter that much anyway”.

But he claims writing a pantomime is a complex job. As the show’s director, Edward Hall, has said, the conventions of panto are “written into the DNA of British audiences”. People know exactly what to expect when they take their seats in the auditorium, and to avoid disappointing hundreds of children every night, the writer has to deliver the goods. “It’s tough,” Ravenhill says. He compares writing pantomime to doing a sudoku puzzle. “You have to have all those things – the corny jokes, the
routines, the songs – in there, and they have to be in the right order” – and, he adds, “you have to serve the story too.”

So Ravenhill’s script oozes with gloriously bad puns, anachronistic quips and gender-bending cross-dressing. The tale of young Dick’s journey to becoming Lord Mayor of London is scattered with references to the singer Charlotte Church, the “Gherkin” (the Swiss Re building, not the vegetable) and London’s mayor Ken Livingstone – or “Len Kidneystone”. And it is no coincidence that this story has been chosen. “The events of Dick Whittington happen here,” Ravenhill says, referring to the area of the Barbican itself. “It is the story of the medieval City of London.”

Whittington himself was a real individual, who was Lord Mayor of London three times. “He didn’t have that interesting a life, really,” says Ravenhill. “He was just a successful lord mayor.”

Yet the evolution of Whittington’s story itself intrigues Ravenhill. As part of his preparations for the show, he spoke to a medieval expert at the Museum of London. This led him to see the story as “the product of a very mercantile age”. The historical Dick Whittington lived during the 14th century, which, he says, “was really the first time that the City of London began to flex its muscles”. The tale was first turned into a piece of drama during the Elizabethan era and it then underwent a resurgence in the 19th century.

Each time, Ravenhill argues, that England took “a big lurch forward in terms of being a mercantile society, people looked to the story of Dick Whittington”. He says this is “partly because it is a story without the monarchy in it, and this must have been a big challenge to the values of Britain”. He obviously enjoys this subversive element to the story, and characterises it as “definitely the City of London strikes back. It is their story, not the king or queen’s.”

The script emphasises the importance of the act of storytelling. The epilogue to the show tells how Whittington was a real individual, but how most of his story “was dreamt up by Elizabethans, Georgians, Victorians. Why? Because sometimes stories are truer than fact and that’s why every year humans act this tale.” This is of a piece with his earlier plays – as Ravenhill points out, storytelling is a common theme in his work. In Shopping, he says, “the characters exist by telling each other stories. It’s one of the last things to happen in the play. The characters settle back into inventing a kind of story for themselves.”

Yet Ravenhill can be ambivalent about the act of dramatising historical fact. His recent play Product is a vicious satire that tells of a Hollywood producer seeking to persuade a young actress to take part in a film that would in effect be a piece of racist post-9/11 pornography. The play “is very critical of the way that reality can be turned into a story”, Ravenhill says. “Is it any good what we do as professionals, either in Hollywood, or in what I do as a playwright – turning fact into story?” In contrast, he sees the story of Dick Whittington as a healthy and creative way of mythologising the past. It is, he says, a celebration of the way that “this rather dull man’s life – a businessman in the City of London – can, 700 years later, create this fantastic story”.

In one sense, it’s not surprising for Ravenhill to have turned his hand to a show like this. Recent years have seen him engage in some unexpected projects. In Product he made his stage debut as an actor, and his play Pool (No Water), now touring nationally, was produced in collaboration with the physical theatre group Frantic Assembly – not a company he had ever expected to work with. Having a reputation for writing a certain kind of play, he says, can be “inhibiting”. But now he has decided he will just “write the plays I want to go and see. I don’t know whether that’s what is expected, or what other playwrights do, but the fact is, that is me.”

Given his recent successes, the kind of play he wants to see is, it seems, the kind of play a lot of other people want to see too.

‘Dick Whittington and his Cat’ opens at the Barbican Theatre, London, on November 29. Tel +44 845 120 7550

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