Dick Whitington and His Cat
Hackney Empire, London
The headline news first: the 2012 song whose inclusion seems mandatory in every pantomime (following “Born This Way” and “All The Single Ladies” in previous years) is, unsurprisingly, “Gangnam Style”. Fortunately, it seems a case more of allusion than full rendition: I haven’t yet seen a production use it for more than a few bars.
I suppose it’s also unsurprising that the year of the London Olympics and Boris Johnson’s re-election should see an upturn in popularity for the panto tale of London’s legendary mayor. Susie McKenna last staged it at Hackney only five years ago, and even British-Asian company Tara Arts is getting in on the act with a rewrite focusing on a young Gujarati wannabe-chef who arrives in London from distant climes – Blackburn in Lancashire. (For convenience this review uses the traditional character names rather than Tara’s revised versions.)
Aficionados of the bizarre rituals of panto have been wary that this is Hackney’s second successive year without Clive Rowe playing the dame. Why any talented actor/singer would choose to appear in Kiss Me Kate under Trevor Nunn at the Old Vic rather than don grotesque drag and clown about in Hackney is beyond me, and that’s not sarcasm. Indeed, the title role here is played by someone who has made the same kind of choice, Olivier award-winner Joanna Riding. Both productions get points for maintaining the now-declining tradition of casting actresses as the “principal boy”, though both wear breeches rather than tights; still, Riding engages enthusiastically in thigh-slapping.
Rowe’s replacement Steve Elias is neither as generously built nor as untrammelled as Rowe in the role of Sarah the Cook but he possesses both energy and assurance in working the audience. Any shortfall is vigorously taken up by both Alderman Fitzwarren (Tony Whittle) and, surprisingly, the dastardly King Rat (Kat B), whose villainy is expertly tempered by backchat and deadpan joking.
Dick Whittington Goes Bollywood
Tara Theatre, London
Something similar happens at Tara, with Sam Kordbacheh (whose character is a kind of conflation of Fitzwarren and King Rat) getting almost as many laughs as Antony Bunsee’s well-padded cook. Scriptwriter Harvey Virdi also gives Kordbacheh an excessive series of risqué “Dick” puns.
There must be some frenzied backstage activity at Tara, since the entire production is brought off with a cast of only six. Yet Jatinder Verma’s production cannot shake a slight air of worthiness; I rather felt that most of the adults in the audience had taken a conscious decision to enjoy themselves. For raucous yet polished fun (even if there is, as usual, half an hour too much of it), Hackney continues to see off challenges by the relative newcomers at the Lyric Hammersmith and retains the London laurels. Ding-dong!