Saturday, 26 December 2020

REVIEW: Dick Whittington at the National Theatre (Online)

There are now eighty Pantomimes available online according to the British Theatre Guide website competing for our viewing time at home and targeting the three million ticket buyers who usually see a live pantomime each Christmas. Many charge a fee to watch or request a donation and those funds are so important to these venues for their survival until next year's Pantomime. With the cancellation of so many Pantomimes this year the National Theatre decided to put on its own version which, when London went into Tier 3/4 Lockdown, was forced to close and a captured preview is now available free of charge for a short period. It is prefaced with an appeal to donate or buy tickets in 2021 for the other affected venues but should the significant resources on display at the NT compete against the multitude of online Pantomimes that seek our attention and funds? Indeed should public funds be used at all to create a show competing with them? The answer must be that they need to do something different and raise the bar to justify the competition.

The NT has restaged the Lyric Hammersmith's version of Dick Whittington in the round in a socially distanced way which creates the feel of an expensive circus ring with traps and lights embedded in the floor. It is a modern retelling of the usual rags to riches story with only the occasional double entendre. Indeed in Sheffield venues Damian's PopUp Panto, also available online for a fee, it defines the essence of Pantomime as "pure joy, quirky humour, warm energy, familiarity and nostalgic". The NT version seems devoid of this essence, the characters are overly intense and serious, almost smug and self-satisfied, and the production lacks warmth and was conceived in a London bubble.

It is not the fault of the talented cast who fully commit, sing passionately and dance enthusiastically but of the script and production conception. Although there are no sets or props it looks expensive with extravagant lighting including a multitude of mirror balls and original costumes but the staging in the round limits the blocking options and each scene merges into the one before. The effect is professional, slick, and artful but does not feel like pantomime. 

Amy Booth-Steel would fit into any pantomime as Queen Rat, at times like Sue Pollard at her villainous best from her 1st appearance through a giant toilet to her final bow in a paddling pool covered in tomato sauce. She wants to win the election to London Mayor and then denies the result in a Trump-like rant. Opposite her Melanie La Barne is the fairy Bow Belles guiding Dick(Lawrence Hodgson-Mullings) to his destiny. Dick finds employment at Sarah's (Dickie Beau) OverEasy Cafe where he meets Alice (Georgina Onvorah) and is accompanied by a two-legged bright yellow Tom Cat (Cleve September). The other characters are the bizarre Mayor Pigeon, Captain Pigeon and Rainbow (all played by Laura Checkley) who Dick encounters on his adventure but are beyond explanation or reason.

There is very little traditional Pantomime business in the show but a very odd appearance of blow-up stick men, a bizarre and pointless Easy Peasy game, and a whack a mole game which add nothing to the production. The Dame does at least engage traditionally with a poor gentleman in the front row. 

The most appealing part of the production is the music with a wide selection of sources, many with lyrics changed under the Musical Direction of Benjamin Kwai-Burrell and three musicians. Dick does Black Eyed Peas "I gotta feeling", Queen Rat does Billie Eilish "Bad Guy" and Dame does Annie Lennox "Sweet Dreams". There are versions of Ariane Grande "One last time", Gilbert and Sullivan "Model Major General", Joel Corry "Head and Heart", and BTS "Dynamite". They all sound very good. 

The NT has the resources to stage exemplary productions and set standards others can't afford to achieve but when it promotes a Pantomime it should raise the bar and create a magical family experience. This Dick Whittington fails to do either and feels overlong, disappointing and makes you long for the real thing that so many are missing at their local theatre this year.

Review by Nick Wayne 

Rating: ★★

Seat: Online | Price of Ticket: Free on Youtube
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