I doubt there is a funnier show in town. Dick Whittington is sheer delight, a smutty, silly, sparkly and very shiny example of “good old family entertainment”. Julian Clary rules supreme, with lavish costumes, a studied indifference to plot, a complete disdain for Elaine Paige’s career and a determination to squeeze as much as he can out of Charlie Stemp’s impressive Dick. Occasionally filthy, but only in that “did he really say that?” kind of way. Utterly awful and utterly glorious. Unmissable Christmas fun.
Tickets may be twice or three times as expensive as the average Pantomime but, unusually for the form these days, the London Palladium’s Dick Whittington is a true treat. The narrative from Alan McHugh and David McGillivray is gossamer thin so there is zero point in attending if you are looking for a good piece of story-telling.
But what the writers get precisely correct is the tone. It is hilarious from start to finish, with set pieces designed to show off the talents of the stars and keep the momentum speeding along. Director Michael Harrison, also responsible for last year’s Cinderella, puts energy and razzle dazzle into every aspect of the production. There are no low points – just a sustained stream of funny, but mostly mindless, escapades and routines. And a cat called Eileen.
A hard-working and impossibly good-looking ensemble dance and sing with panache, although pins and six-packs seem more emphasised than diction. It scarcely matters, because the effect of their work is genial and glitzy, not the least because of their fancy footwork (designed by Karen Bruce) and sequin sensational costumes (courtesy of Ron Briggs). Most of their work is camp and excessive but there are occasional subtleties – such as a nod to Follies – which demonstrate their skill and versatility.
Charlie Stemp absolutely demonstrates why Broadway beckons (he joins the Bernadette Peters Hello Dolly! next year) in his charming and quite effortless turn as the titular Dick. He looks brightly handsome, sings with a clear attractive voice, brimming with vitality, and dances with a vigorous dexterity that lets him own any stage moment he chooses.
Like a good company member, though, Stemp never oversteps the mark and never tries to stand in anyone else’s light. Quite remarkably, after a year of Half A Sixpence, Stemp sings and performs Flash, Bang, Wallop (albeit with adjusted lyrics) as though he had never sung it before. A true star.
Equally starry is the glorious Emma Williams, who is beautiful in form and voice, as Alice Fitzwarren, Dick’s love interest. The part is nothing on the page, but Williams imbues Alice with zest and sweet fragility. She is in excellent voice and one of the disappointments of the night is that she and Stemp don’t get more stage time together to show off their duet skills.
Adding masculine acrobatic virtuosity is Ashley Banjo as The Sultan and former Britain’s Got Talent winners, Diversity, as his advisers/eunuchs. The routines they perform are terrific and the audience lap up every moment.
Nigel Havers enjoys himself enormously as Captain Nigel, and the audience enjoys him almost as much. Havers’ “I want a bigger part/What happened to my career” schtick is actually very funny, and Havers has particularly excellent comic timing. He can improvise cleverly too and has the skill that few do – he can make rehearsed corpsing seem absolutely spontaneous.
Paul Zerdin, ventriloquist extraordinaire, is terrifically winning as Idle Jack and his charm works wonders in getting the audience into the right mood for laughter and participation. His routines with, first, an unsuspecting couple and, later, a quartet of youngsters (who ranged from outstsndingly cute to cheekily precocious) are laugh-out-loud-funny. His dummy seems truly alive which, of itself, marks Zerdin’s contribution as exceptional.
Every good Pantomime needs an energetically villainous character – someone who relishes being booed by the audience and who can curl a cape with impunity. In Dick Whittington, traditionally the ruler of the rats is that villain and, in this production, that is Queen Rat played by Elaine Paige. It’s an unusual role for Paige and one, frankly, she does not savour as a better actor might. But the role is tailored around Paige’s career, and she has fun with versions of As If I Never Said Goodbye, Memory and, most spectacularly, I Know Him So Well, a duet she spars with Julian Cleary in (with risqué new lyrics about which of them knows the male appendage better). When singing, Paige is terrific; in other respects, she needs to relax and unleash her inner poisonous dwarf. She is too used to being loved on stage to allow herself the joy of being hated.
At the other end of the spectrum is Gary Wilmot who here has the traditional Dame role, Sarah Fitzwarren. Wilmot seems reticent to properly embrace the vulgarity and riotous possibilities of his character. Like Paige, Wilmot needs to come to grips with the extremes of the role. He does, though, bring down the house when he sings an extremely difficult patter song which lists all of the London tube stations. With more gusto, Wilmot would be a sensation.
But, in truth, the evening belongs to Clary’s impeccable turn as The Spirit Of The Bells. He misses no tricks, scoring laugh after laugh with witty asides, softly spoken filth, deadpan stares, and eye acting of the insouciant kind.
Every entrance sees a new and elaborately camp costume from Hugh Durrant and Clary struts and parades in perfect peacock fashion. His ad-libs are as deftly delivered as his rehearsed material and the other principals all lift their game when with him on stage. As, indeed, they must.
The material seems more obviously camp this year than last year, when sometimes the barbs seemed to bite a little too hard.
But it is priceless watching Clary try to seduce Stemp’s Dick or belittle Paige’s Queen Rat. His breathlessness over Diversity is a study in comic affectation. And together with Havers, Zerdin and Wilmot, Clary delivers a delightfully reworked Twelve Days Of Christmas with a moment with toilet rolls that is quite unforgettable.
Dick Whittington is just the (quite expensive) ticket for Christmas cheer, safe for all audiences except the most rabidly bigoted.