‘Dick Whittington and His Cat’ review

Theatre, Panto
4 out of 5 stars
Dick Whittington and his Cat, Hackney Empire, 2019
Photograph: Robert Workman Christina Tedders, Tarinn Callender, Clive Rowe, Kat B

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

This year’s Hackney panto is a sharp and big-hearted tribute to the Windrush generation (with lots of pie-splatting)

‘Aladdin’ was recently found to be the UK’s most-staged panto, but however deeply attached we might be to its orientalist mash-up of cultures, ‘Dick Whittington’ is a much more satisfying story for twenty-first-century Londoners. It has everything: a rags-to-riches transformation, romance, a chatty cat, and limitless potential for knob jokes. And in longtime Hackney panto creator Susie McKenna’s new version, it also has a post-Windrush relevance that’s acid sharp, without tarnishing the show’s glitter.

In a beautifully Christmassy gesture, McKenna takes direct inspiration from the stories of her wife’s family, who came to London on the Windrush. Dick steps off the boat, singing ‘I dreamed an impossible dream’, only to discover a chilly ’50s London where the inhabitants are quick to stare, and the streets are still scarred by air raids. His path to Mayordom draws on both the story of the 1300s Richard Whittington, and that of the 1980s Southwark mayor Sam Beaver King. But you wouldn’t necessarily know it from the abundance of trad panto hilarity that fills this show: Dick (Tarinn Callender) gets a job in Alderman Fitzwarren’s shop, where he and his talking cat (Kat B) cause pie-splatting mayhem, before being cast out to prove themselves on the high seas.

Hackney panto’s design doesn’t quite have the gorgeous coherence of previous years’ efforts, mixing a few nicely done custom mid-century London backdrops with more standard panto fare. But that might be a niche quibble given that the performers in front of them are really giving this story their all: Annette McLaughlin and Sue Kelvin are a spectacular pairing as wicked queen and good fairy, and seasoned dame Clive Rowe is endlessly funny, especially when his tropical love duet gets thrown off course by a wayward wig.

The ’50s setting means glorious tap routines galore, performed with ramshackle vigour by kids and young people from a local dance school. Unlike its glitzier rivals, this is a show that relies on a lot of volunteer labour and goodwill – there are regular jokes about Dick’s election as mayor bringing the theatre more funding, plus digs at austerity and Queen Rat’s golden-haired, vomit-stained sidekick Boris. Whatever happens in the UK’s real-life election, a panto this good deserves your cash – and offers handsome rewards.

By: Alice Saville



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