Chris Eldon Lee reviews ‘Dick Whittington’, which is at Wolverhampton’s Grand Theatre until Sunday 12th of January.
The Wolverhampton Grand pantomime this year is so eclectic, it’s impossible to pin it down.
Panto has to be all things to all people, of course, to keep everyone happy – and last night’s full house was utterly joyous. But what they saw (had they realised it) was akin to a geological cross-section of the history of pantomime; ranging from gags as old as the theatre itself … through to a hip-hop rapping Tom cat.
Ian Adams – who compiles the script, directs the actors and plays the dazzling, vintage Dame – treats us to some age-old Variety oddities; such as a quintet of characters playing the spoons, an exercise in cockney hand-dancing, some pretty anonymous B-movie songs, and the famous (expertly performed) Wilson Keppel and Betty sand dance – all played against a classic pen and ink wash Christmas Card set.
From the other end of the spectrum a giant, high-tech, hydraulic rat hovers over the audience, the tele stars get washed up on Love Island, and Idle Jack peppers his patter with Elvis song titles and does a Boris Johnson impression that is so good I could have watched it all night.
For the bloke with a biro trying to write a review, the two cultures collide uncomfortably somewhere in the middle. For the audience – what the heck!
Let me alight on some highlights.
Aaron James Jack is jollity personified as ‘Jack’. Here’s a young guy who knows how to work an audience. You soften them up by insulting all their local football teams, knock them flat by doing an A to Z of famous impressions (at which he is remarkably good) and top it all off by coming on as a bumbling, blond-wigged, Prime Minister (at the time of writing). I could have watched him doing Boris all night.
There is a Corbyn gag for balance – though judging by the audience reaction, the good people of Wolverhampton won’t be voting for either of them.
Aaron James has the crowd in the palm of his hand … turning us all into Elvis impersonators. Apparently, he’s being doing Elvis impressions himself for a very long time. (“Though there wasn’t much call for it in 1948”.)
Every Panto needs a good fairy with a fabulous voice. Julie Paton, playing Bow Bell, sings superbly and looks just like a 1950s good fairy should. My grandad would have loved her.
Naturally, she is called upon to gracefully wave her traditional silver wand on several, storytelling, occasions. When she transforms Queen Rat – a loud and lively Su Pollard in laddered fishnets – into a Good Person, the baddie remerges in a trice as Peggy from ‘Hi De Hi’. By sheer coincidence, her Maplin’s camp mate Jeffrey Holland has been playing Alderman Fitzwarren all along, and so there is even more scope for audience response. I’m sure you can guess what.
The other star turn is Jordan Ginger as Tommy Tickletum, who has a fabulous RP speaking voice and bags of feline energy.
Press Night was particularly special this Christmas. It was held on the exact 125th anniversary of the opening of The Grand and there was an extra celebrity waiting in the wings to help us celebrate. So, when the turbaned Sultan strode on – it was Jimmy Tarbuck; who proceeded to do a masterclass in stage presence. It was great to see him in the flash, and to watch him handle children who had no idea who he was. Suddenly we were back in good old Musical Hall territory … which is where we came in.
Qdos Pantomimes are about to suffer the same fate as Virgin trains. They will no longer be seen in Wolverhampton. The Grand is aiming to do more in-house productions and that includes the Panto. I gather Ian Adams is to spearhead the new adventure and, with a freer hand, perhaps I can hope that next year’s Cinderella will be a little more homogenised. They can’t touch you for it!
Visit www.grandtheatre.info for bookings & information about Wolverhampton’s Grand Theatre