New Forest Players Ballard School, New Milton Philip & Julie McStraw 28 December 2023
It’s ‘Panto’ time again! And we’d been looking forward to returning to the Ballard School theatre since this time last year, when we had the pleasure of experiencing the New Forest Players’ fantastic production of Cinderella. This year the New Forest Player’s invite one and all to join them in the ‘purrrfect’ adventure of Dick Whittington (and his cat).
Unlike the majority of traditional pantomimes, which are based on European folk tales or stories from even further afield, Dick Whittington is probably the most British of all pantomimes. Many of us have an inkling that there was in fact a certain Richard Whittington, from Gloucestershire, who set out to make his fortune in London and ended up marrying into an important merchant family, the Fitzwarrens, and he became Lord Mayor for the first time in 1397. But while that much is true, the popular story of the pantomime is built on a mythology that was developed over the years. The ‘classic’ version has Dick Whittington as a poor orphan boy who walks to London from the countryside, picking up with his cat along the way, in the belief that the streets are paved with gold. Cold and hungry he is taken in by the Fitzwarrens to work as a scullion (kitchen boy). After a while he decides dirty and rat-infested London is not for him, but when he reaches Highgate Hill the distant Bow Bells beckon him to turn back and claim his fortune. As ‘they’ say, the rest is history, or not, but you’ll know how it goes, more or less, from there on…
But then again, this version by the New Forest Players veers sharply away from the customary plot and delivers a new story that has Dick being forced to leave London after being framed for stealing a valuable necklace, belonging to Alderman Fitzwarren, by the evil Queen Rat. He then returns to clear his name, which involves him going to sea in a pirate ship that sinks off the coast of Morocco. With the help of his cat, ‘Tommy’, he clears Morocco of a rat infestation, for which he is rewarded with enough treasure to secure the position of Lord Mayor of London along with the hand in marriage of the beautiful Alice Fitzwarren.
Once again, Dorset based Panto specialist Lee Redwood is at the scriptwriting helm, which is reassurance enough to be certain that audiences are in for a treat. The action fairly gallops along, like a Christmas steeplechase from Kempton Racecourse, with the onlookers being entertained by a flood of the usual slapstick and one-liners, which can be lapped up by adults and children alike with everyone laughing and groaning at the same time. As to be expected there’s a heathy peppering of topical content, risqué innuendo and the required catchphrases – all the ingredients for a good pantomime. Added to this is a running montage of familiar pop songs accompanied by a large ensemble chorus of some 27 children and adults, singing and dancing with great gusto and flair. Yes, it’s terrific fun and this was fully evident from its reception on the sell-out opening night by the lively and enthusiastic audience.
At the centre of the stage is a huge floor to ceiling story book containing pages of painted scenery that are turned over as the story is played out – a wonderful and magical device that could grace the stage of any professional production. This can also be said of the costumes, which are simply great and absolutely purrrfect. The Production and Backstage teams have truly excelled themselves.
All of the players play their parts well in traditional panto style and deliver their lines with good comedic effect, (even when a line is forgotten or a cue inadvertently missed). As there are 13 of them it would be inappropriate to review the performance of each one of them in turn. It would also be unfitting to single out any one of them for individual praise, they are all good and all of them are integral to the overall performance – it’s that simple!
The New Forest Players have yet another success to their name and can add this production of Dick Whittington to their impressive rollcall of excellent pantos. Long may they continue to delight local people with such high-calibre amateur theatre.
Dick Whittington runs until 31 December. If you miss out this time round, you can think about booking early for next year’s production, knowing that you’ll have a great evening of seasonal entertainment to look forward to!