‘Dick Whittington’ must be the most London pantomime, with a young hero who dreams of a city in which the streets are paved with gold, and eventually ascends to Mayor. Stratford East’s ebullient show revels in that fact, whether cracking hyper-local jokes about Dick’s origins as a turnip farmer in the West Field, or making digs at an irresponsible blond mayor with multiple families. There are relentless puns on Catford and Barking – Dick’s sidekick cat longs to be a dog, you see, an instance of this warmly right-on panto's theme: you can be whoever you want to be.
David Watson and Robert Hyman have crafted a cracker of a show, finding just the right balance between traditional boo-hiss silliness and witty topical references. Jokes fly by your ears at a hundred miles an hour, but a good proportion of them hit their target. The pace of the action in director John Haidar’s production is a bit slower, mind, and the show could certainly benefit from a snip, coming in at two-and-a-half hours. But this panto sceptic was gurgling with enjoyment for much of the evening.
The usual plot of ‘Dick Whittington’ is mushed with that of ‘The Pied Piper of Hamelin’: King Rat (a suitably dashing and moustache-twizzling Tom Giles) lures away the rats plaguing London with his magic flute. He then takes all the city’s kids too, in order to harvest their dreams to power said flute – a circularity of plot it’s best not to think too much about. Anyway, you know he’s definitely a proper baddie because he’s also a property developer: King Rat is building castles all over London that are left standing empty.
Stir into the mix a panto dame running an ice-cream parlour, her charming daughter, and a literally Rubbish Dragon (budgetary requirements winkingly overcome by tinfoil and disposable cutlery), and you have a right knickerbocker glory of whipped-up fun.
The music is serviceable rather than knockout, and not all the cast have the sweetest voices – although Harry Jardine as the cat does do a grime number about aspiring to be more dawg that ignites the room. Sèverine Howell-Meri and Francesca Zoutewelle are perky as Dick and his love interest Alice, and Vedi Roy as dame Lady Lush enjoys getting up one member of the audience for a bit of naughty ice-cream sculpting. But the innuendo is rarely laid on too heavily, the show really being more about sending us off into the cold night stuffed with warm messages about accepting your true self and loving people for who they really are. It even ends on a hymn to snowflakes.