There's slapstick and magic galore at Wilton's historic panto.
There are two magical stories to be told at Wilton’s this Christmas. One is about how a mid-19th century music hall, which somehow escaped the bombs of war and the modernising designs of almost two centuries-worth of architects, was saved thanks to the goodwill of patrons, and restored to being a well-worn and much-loved theatre destination. The other’s about a guy and his talented pet.
Both are compelling, but it’s really the history and the bright future of Wilton’s which makes this masterful panto feel extra-special. Its a context that the show’s writer and star, Roy Hudd, is well aware of. He’s the grand old man of London’s music hall tradition and its a clear delight to him to be starring as the dame, Sarah the Cook, in this ‘Dick Whittington’. The excitement’s infectious, even if the puns are terrible.
So what telling of Dick Whittington’s story is this? A 'Dick's Got Talent' embellished by ‘Frozen’ references, and ‘Uptown Funk’ dance sequences? Nah, this is a classy affair, as much for adults (who made up almost the all audience) as for kids. Dick is the upwardly mobile fellow with the RP accent and the rat-catching cat who lands a job at William Widl’s eponymous supermarket (Widl – of course). There he meets and falls in love with charming Alice, and gets his knees up in proper cockney fashion. The stage is set for Dick to climb the ladder and up-end Boris from his Santander cycle to become Lord Mayor, until rodent oligarch Ronaldo Ratface steps in to try and spoil the happy ending.
There's all the slapstick, nonsense and Poppins-worthy cockney caricatures you might hope for from a good East End panto, and the physical comedy earns belly-laughs as much as the knob jokes. Getting the audience to sing ‘Oh no you won’t’ to the tune of ‘Oh Come All Ye Faithful’ is another inspired move – proving this is a panto composed by two impresarios: Dame Roy and director Debbie Flitcroft.
But it really is Hudd who makes it. From his first entrance, every second of his understated performance is sheer joy. It’s like watching a great craftsman at work: a tailor cutting a suit or a smithy beating steel. It just so happens that Hudd works with Mars bars – throwing them at members of the audience – and his output is the finest, most salacious nonsense.
And it does get salacious. Hudd opens the show with a tawdry tale about an encounter until a Tower Hill underpass. There’s also a Yorkshire maharajah and his Welsh concubine. And a brassiere made of coconuts. And all sorts of other baloney that would never seem funny outside of the zippy second act of this fine show.
Or maybe it’s the music hall venue that’s sprinkled this panto with magic – like flakes of paint peeling from the ceiling. It’s hard not to laugh at this festival of silliness – as perfectly, and faithfully, daft as any other in the last 200 years.
BY: JONNY ENSALL