Birmingham Hippodrome’s Dick Whittington gives us many traditional Panto delights: spectacle,
lavish costumes, fun, a boo-able baddy, and a gaudy, buxom Dame, straight off an end-of-the-pier
postcard. The plot could be written on the back of a postage stamp but who cares? This is an excuse for some all-singing, all-dancing production numbers; truly magical stage craft; and a succession of polished knock-about comic set pieces. Great stuff!
Comedy is very much at the forefront of this show. Comedian, Matt Slack, who has for the last few
years played comic characters in the Hippo’s Pantos, this year is promoted to the role of Dick. Slack
is a formidably funny man and a versatile impressionist, blessed with impeccable timing. He takes
the lead on a seemingly endless, quickfire barrage of top-shelf gags which are, for the sake of the
children, all couched in not-so-subtle innuendo. It is rib-achingly funny.
All-in-all, Slack, who co-wrote the show, occupies around 75% of its content, and he is rarely off the stage or not at the very centre of attention. Now this is both a good and a bad thing. On the plus side he generates an infectious sense of organised mayhem which drives the show on with a chaotic momentum. Less comfortable is the way in which the usual dynamic of pantomime is so drastically altered by his promotion.
In more traditional Pantos, a romantic couple strive heroically for love and fortune while their efforts
are both supported and sent up by the comic characters surrounding them. Slack’s Dick is too busy being
funny to have much time for romance. And, because you can’t help but laugh at him, moments of emotional tension – such as when he is disgraced and driven from town – are lost. As a result the overall narrative lacks variety of tone. Also, you really have to like Slack as a rather laddish performer, because there is an awful lot of him.
This change of dynamic has an impact on the other characters. The would-be love interest, Alice,
Suzanne Shaw has very little to do. Dr Ranj, as The Spirit of the Bells, is in danger of becoming the stooge
to Slack’s funny man. Ranj gives a performance just large enough to avoid that trap. Andrew Ryan is
too-much the seasoned Panto professional to be overshadowed by anyone, and gives a pitch-perfect Dame as Felicity Fitzwarren: Ryan is utterly sensational. Gill Jordan, playing her comic creation, Doreen Tipton, as The Cat, stands out from the crowd by delivering a hilariously laid-back performance. And, boy, can she sing! Marti Pellow oozes an over-the-top menace as the villainous Ratman.
If you like your Panto to have a bit of escapist, fairy-tale romance, you might leave the theatre a little disappointed. If, however, you are looking for a spectacular and side-splittingly funny evening’s entertainment with something for all the family – and with some quite breath-taking stage design and costumes – this will very much be the show for you. Just brace yourself for some very mucky humour and have answers to your children’s awkward questions about “Dick” and “Pussy” ready to hand!
The Ratman – Marti Pellow
Dick Whittington – Matt Slack
The Spirit of the Bells – Dr Ranj
Alice Fitzwarren – Suzanne Shaw
Doreen, the Cat – Doreen Tipton
Felicity Fitzwarren – Andrew Ryan
Spark Fire Dance – Dave Knox & Grace Billings
Devised and Directed by – Michael Harrison
Written by – Matt Slack & Alan McHugh
Original Songs by – Marti Pellow & Grant Michell
Lyrics by – Shaun McKenna
Musical Director – Robert Willis
Costume Design – Teresa Nalton
Set Design – Ian Westbrook
Lighting Design – Ben Cracknell