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Dick Whittington: not quite the win the National was hoping for

James Newbery reviews the National Theatre's 'Dick Whittington' production and the complexities of trying to pull off a pantomime online.

There’s a guilty pleasure in watching a pantomime at the end of January. It’s like playing your Spotify Christmas playlist in the middle of July— you know you shouldn’t, but you can’t help but belt Mariah Carey while the rest of the world are outside having barbecues and enjoying the sun. So when the National Theatre announced that they’d be putting their socially-distanced first ever pantomime since 1983 up on their newly-launched National Theatre at Home service, I was intrigued.

It’s safe to say that the production is a mixed bag. The script (written by Jude Christian and Cariad Lloyd) is an updated revival of the 2018 Lyric Hammersmith version of Dick Whittington. The overall concept is to do away with the clichéd hallmarks of the genre. This version attempts to be the Hamilton of pantomimes, incorporating street dance, rap, pop ballads and frequent references to TikTok trends into an otherwise familiar tale. It is a love letter to London, putting the city’s bustling diversity and vibrancy centre stage. I did enjoy the elements of political satire that the production managed to include, such as the subtle jab at the Tory Government’s free school meals misfire. The mayor of London in this production (who for some reason is a pigeon) even flies in on a zip-wire, sporting a shaggy mop of hair that looked suspiciously similar to that of the current Prime Minister…

Yet I was left with the overwhelming impression that the script tries too hard to be up-to-date and relevant. Apart from a few racy double entendres and allusions to Netflix shows (“It’s like Emily in Paris all over again”), most of the comedy falls flat and the dialogue is mediocre at best. One particularly awful scene involved the villainess, Queen Rat, arriving on stage on a giant-sized evil Henry the Hoover. The wittiest one-liner the script could muster up was “man, hoovers really do suck”. The musical elements of the show provide a welcome relief—I particularly enjoyed the parodic version of Billie Eilish’s ‘Bad Guy’ to introduce the villain of the piece. At times the use of pop songs were overused to the extent that Dick Whittington began to feel more like a jukebox musical and less of a pantomime; a rendition of Dua Lipa’s ‘Don’t Start Now felt‘ a bit forced and did little to carry the plot, or indeed provide any sense of comic relief.

One thing, however, that cannot be faulted was the cast. I have rarely seen a cast with such energy and enthusiasm, and they single-handedly carried what was an otherwise very flat script. It must undoubtedly be difficult to perform a pantomime (which as a genre is particularly reliant on audience interaction) in the Olivier Theatre. It is after all the National’s biggest stage, and of course felt especially empty due to distancing requirements. Standouts include Dickie Beau’s gloriously filthy performance as a classic pantomime dame, while Melanie La Barrie stunned the audience with her stage-presence and singing abilities as the fairy-godmother-esque figure Beaux Belles. Lawrence Hodgson-Mullings again impressed us with his singing and dancing abilities but was perhaps not quite a charismatic enough lead to carry the show as Dick. Even just watching it on the screen, you could really get a sense of the camaraderie, both amongst the actors, and also in their relationship with the audience.

It also must be remembered that their run was cut short by the placement of London into tier three after their fourth preview performance. The actors would have had much more time to grow into their roles, and they would have had time to iron out the weaknesses in the script. It must have been hard to keep the morale going, given how aware they were that the curtain was to come crashing down at the point where the run felt like it was just beginning. Georgia Lowe’s set and costume design was another highlight of the production. The costumes felt like a blend between box of Quality Streets and a Tim Burton movie, while minimalist in-the-round set made use of a clock motif, with the hour hands subtly providing distancing guidelines for the actors. Indeed, the end of the production involved the love-interests hugging through plastic sheets—a comic reminder of the difficulties that the cast and crew must have collectively gone through to get this show on its feet.

I wonder if I would have enjoyed it more if I had been in the actual theatre itself. Much of what makes pantomimes enjoyable is the interaction between the stage and the audience—something that a filmed version at home, however well-shot simply cannot replicate. I had actually booked to see this production in person, so was sad not to be able to attend when restrictions changed, and we were placed into another national lockdown. The last play I saw pre-corona was actually Our Brilliant Friend in the Olivier itself, this time last year—and I for one can’t wait to be sitting back in that space watching another NT production as soon as restrictions ease.

Image Credit: The Other Richard.

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