Dick Whittington

Bishopstoke Players  Durley Memorial Hall, Durley David Cradduck 27 January 2024

Just when you thought panto was all over for another year, Bishopstoke Players pop up with a family-friendly version of Dick Whittington, performed over three late January days (plus the statutory matinée of course) at Durley Memorial Hall.

Glitzy it’s not. Big budget it’s not. Megastars… not one. But this is traditional family panto at its roots and the essence of it is FUN. I defy anyone to come away from this show without an aching face from smiling and laughing. As nearly 20 actors, young (very young in one or two cases) and old alike, squeeze onto the small stage, it’s one-liners from the start with the obligatory panto audience participation from the off.

Charles Philip’s version of Dick Whittington is very much up to date with some highly topical jokes (one or two making fun of some recent targets such as Fujitsu and the Sussexes) and the appearance of the Gherkin alongside St Paul’s on the London skyline backdrop. Of course, in true panto tradition, many of the gags work on different levels so most of the slightly adult/risqué ones (with a title like Dick Whittington you can expect at least one about the hero’s Christian name) go safely over the little ones’ heads. Talking of whom there were quite a few little ones in the audience at today’s matinée, one toddler even making an hilarious escape down the aisle in the second half.

There will be some familiar characters in the show, apart from Dick Whittington himself (played very confidently by Molly Smith), such as his cat, Tom, and the ultra baddy King Rat aka interloper Mayor Kingsley Rattinger, a versatile performance of both by Mark Woodcock. But there are loads of new ones too, or rather variations of familiar ones: as well as Tom the Cat (Beth Bowers with some very pithy observations) there is another cat, Fluffy, who is obviously a stray from Lloyd-Webber’s Cats as every time she appears in Act 1 she tries her hardest to sing ‘Memories’ only to be put in her place time after time with the line “You’re a cat, you’re not IN Cats”. Needless to say, Fluffy (Ella Cannavo, who really has a very sweet singing voice), eventually has her five minutes in the spotlight while nobody’s looking. A well-deserved round of applause for a touching solo.

It wouldn’t be panto without a Dame and Pete Burton as Fanny Fitzwarren fits the bill perfectly. His make-up, comic timing and multiple, garish dame’s costumes are spot on; his interaction with the audience is second to none. Kevin Bowers as the ‘real’ King also interacts well with the crowd and wears the joke-shop crown with suitable sincerity.

There are too many stars and rising stars to mention by name as this is really an ensemble piece so it would be wrong to pick out too many people, but I must make special mention of Effie and Nesta Flynn who, apart from being the tiniest people on stage, were amongst the best dancers and most confident performers. I sense future roles for these two!

The plot is loosely based on the traditional panto of the same name and writer Charles Philip and director Adrian Barrett have ensured that enough remains of the original story to please the traditionalists like me. Add in a couple of dodgy sidekicks in the form of ‘Scratch’ and ‘Sniff’ (Esme Millins and Lizzie Sellars) and some unlikely hippies from Highgate Hill, cameos from ‘Captain C Dog’ and even Quasimodo and you get the idea – there’s a been a lot of influence of other shows as hero Dick eventually gets his date with the princess (although the wedding finale itself isn’t theirs, it’s the two cats’!) after seeing off the rats and saving the crown jewels. There’s even an uncredited appearance of a gorilla in the frenetic rescue scene.

Pace is good (shame a few scene endings petered out a little) and no lines dropped or pregnant pauses to spoil the action. The length of show was just about right at under 90 minutes, but the 15-minute interval turned out to be nearer 30 once the raffle was complete and all winners located.

Lighting, props and sets are minimalist, proving that less is more. Sound effects come thick and fast (and occasionally a bit too loud). There is a proper pyro explosion which made one small, invited audience member jump for her life at our performance. Costumes are colourful, inventive and some brilliant – even if half of them belong to Fanny Fitzwarren.

This is the third panto that Bishopstoke Players have performed, as they also celebrate their third birthday*. Adrian Barrett, director, says he is “very proud” of his cast of mixed abilities and ages, and so he should be; the enthusiasm and teamwork is evident. And the basic ingredient, FUN, is there for us all to enjoy.

You don’t need to have a huge budget, nor does it need to be Christmas, to enjoy good, home-spun panto like this. Just the ability to clap, smile and laugh a lot.

[Editorial: third anniversary of Bishopstoke Players performing at Durley Memorial Hall; Bishopstoke Players have been performing and supporting Action For Children since 1947]