South Hill Park
Until Saturday, January 5
AT THE end of Dick Whittington And His Cat, the little girl just a few seats down the row was standing, a massive grin on her face. She was as radiant as her princess dress and clapping and cheering for all she was worth.
Clearly, she had, like many of the Brownies and Guides in the audience, had a whale of a time.
And it’s not hard to see why – this is the best South Hill Park pantomime for years.
Dick Whittington and His Cat is a contemporary take on the centuries-old tale of young boy done good.
Some liberties are taken with the traditional story – the real Dick almost certainly didn’t find his fame and fortune in Santa’s workshop – but playwright Joyce Branagh found a way and kept her audience alongside as she did so.
The opening prologue, delivered with aplomb by Fairy Bowbells (Shani Cantor), featured charming wooden paintings to set the scene. This then led into a Pearly King and Queen-studded opening number: a medley of London songs including The Lambeth Walk. This provided the entrance for returning dame Brad Clapson, this year as Sally South Hill and is proving to be a firm favourite with South Hill Park audiences.
For Dick’s arrival, we are greeted not with a man but a Walter The Softy-esque character. Michael Ayiotis clearly follows the script and gives a gentle performance, but you long for him to be made of sterner stuff. Thankfully, Sally South Hill whips him into shape and turns him from a boy to a man … and ultimately, well, that would spoil a nice surprise.
After this, Dick is a hero, especially to his love interest the talented Faye Ellen as Alice Fitzwarren. With a beautiful smile, she really lights up the stage and has a strong voice.
John Conway has a dual role as Alderman Fitzwarren and Santa. He is, even with a fake beard, very convincing as the man in the red suit, while as the Alderman he is warm and friendly and gives it his all in his various routines.
Matthew Houston, who received Best International Actor at the Seoul WebFest earlier this year, was cast as a gentler King Rat than has been seen previously. His portrayal had shades of Horrible Histories’ Chatty Death, but as he wasn’t really allowed to chew the scenery enough his eventual comeuppance was less of a shock.
The star of the show has to be Rebecca Ayres as Tabby The Cat. Her movements were graceful and delicate, just like a real moggy, while having energy, wit and charm. It is a demanding role, especially taking part in high tempo action scenes while eating a sandwich. She did so with aplomb.
It is a very accomplished pantomime, but there are some miscues.
The subplot of Sally South Hill and Santa attempting a romance, including a duet of Can’t Take My Eyes Off You, is a serious misstep and should not have been allowed past first draft stage.
Elsewhere, at times the music overpowered the actors’ voices so the diction was lost.
And the rehash of a Two Ronnies sketch, thankfully acknowledged, felt lazy: this slapstick had been there, seen it, and done it many times before.
But there are many highs.
Tabby The Cat’s first big fight scene is choreographed to a riff on Carmina Burana (the music from the Old Spice advert for those with long memories and smelly bathroom cabinets) and is superbly done. A cheeky inclusion of the Baby Shark song equally so.
The sets, and the way in which they are changed, are well done, and the young chorus are superb.
Some of the lines were sublime: King Rat’s justification for being in Santa’s Workshop? “The smell of mince pies were overwhelming” tickled the audience’s funny bones, while some of Brad’s lines had him in stitches as well as the punters.
Songs were great. Their take on 12 Days of Christmas was massively appreciated by the audience, although the denouement left no space for an encore or the lengthy applause this set piece deserved.
There is much to enjoy in this show, and judging from the reactions – the little girl in my row was not the only saucer-eyed youngster in the audience – they clearly did.