Oh yes it is that time of year again. Torch Theatre company return for pantomime season with an all singing, all dancing version of the perhaps lesser known story of Dick Whittington, written and directed by Award Winning Artistic Director Peter Doran. As is to be expected from such a talented theatre company, the show goes far beyond the basics of pantomime offering an action packed and charming treat for all the family. Doran takes the traditional story of the boy who travels to London with the help of a cat to make his fortune, and turns it into a delightful journey of magic, mischief and mayhem for the modern age.
No expense has been spared. A giant bell narrates the story, a beat boxing cat called Tommy teaches country boy Dick cockney rhyming slang, smartly dressed rats with moving tails creep across the stage and several set changes delight and enthrall the audience, who for this production, were mostly school children.
From the very beginning the production is colourful and interactive, the actors energised and enthusiastic, encouraging the audience to join in, in true pantomime style.
The pantomime traditions are there, the overbearing Dame (a welcome return for Dion Davies), the villainous King Rat (Sion Ifan) always greeted by a chorus of boos, the young lovers who are separated for most of the play, and the jokes, innuendos and slap stick shenanigans we’ve come to expect.
Yet Doran manages to make this production appeal to a modern audience, with the introduction of upbeat music and some striking original songs by Musical Director James Williams. There is also choreographed dancing (Francesca Goodridge) for all of the cast with genre’s of music ranging from rap and reggae to ballads and rock. References to Brexit and the bakery chain Greggs help to bring the story into the present day along with amusing comparisons between King Rat and Gary Neville who was famously called Rat boy throughout his career.
Doran ensures the stage is a constant whirlwind of activity, scenes flowing seamlessly into each other, keeping the audience entertained. Older audience members will delight in comical references to the back stage set up. ‘Where’s the safe?’ ‘In the wings next to the stage manager.’
The set design (created by Sean Crowley) is impressive for such a production. We are taken from Gloucester, by period setting road signs which direct us to London, to the beautifully designed street in the capital, complete with WHSmith, Paul Satori and Fitzwarren’s shop. The stage later becomes the bow of a ship against a background screen of crashing waves, a night sky in the African Jungle and the home of the Sultan(a) in Morocco.
The pantomime begins in the traditional way, introduced by the narrator who anchors the plot.
Bow Bells, played by Francesca Goodridge, is the sweet and cheerful voice of the story, encouraging Dick when his journey becomes thwarted. Goodridge has an incredible voice which is showcased in her solo performance of the touching ‘Turn again Whittington’ .
Oraine Johnson is fantastic as Tommy the cat, bringing to life the character with flair and originality. His talent for singing and dancing add to the role and bring something cool and modern to the traditional story. Johnson also plays the sultan(a) of Morocco, demonstrating his acting diversity. Hunched in his chair, with an enormous belly and sucking on a hookah pipe, Johnson’s accent is convincing, adding a humour but also a surreal element to the production.
Joe Robinson plays Dick, a quiet but enthusiastic country boy who has a lot to learn on his journey to London. His broad Welsh accent, when his home is Gloucester, is not lost on fellow characters, who make a joke of it. Robinson plays Dick as a sweet-natured boy who just wants the best out of life, and the audience immediately warm to him. Miriam O’Brien is his love interest and the Alderman’s daughter Alice. The pair work well on stage together and manage to add an element of mischief and knowing to their sweet and innocent facades.
Dion Davies returns as the Whittington Dame, Sarah the cook. Bold and brash, with a valleys accent, he gains laughs from the audience young and old, as he struts around the stage in a variety of gaudy outfits and an overly made up face. His interaction with Johnson is comedy gold as they attempt to trick each other in a game that involves a lot of laughs and a fair bit of water.
Richard Nichols, plays the Alderman, owner of Fitzwarren’s and desperate to rid the city of rats. Old and slightly doddery on his feet, unsure of what to do for the best and with a strong cockney accent, Nichols’ star moment comes when he raps to Old MacDonald’s farm alongside the Dame at the end of the show. A clever move which also brings an interactive element to the young audience.
Of course, you can’t have a pantomime without a panto villain. Sion Ifan is the evil King Rat who is taking over London and attempts to steal from the Alderman and marry his daughter. Ifan is the perfect villain, slyly creeping around stage to the shrieks and boos of the audience. He is also given a selection of rock songs which display his voice and add to the dark nature of his character. There is something magnetic about his stage presence, drawing the audience in. An interesting turn for a pantomime villain.
The costumes (Helen Rodgers) in Dick Whittington are appealing and add a lot to the enjoyment of the production. Dick wears modern clothes, yet he carries a traditional red and white spotty bindle. Tommy the cat slinks and pounces in a black and white tracksuit and trainers. King Rat is dressed in black velvet, with waistcoat and feathered hat, giving his role a buccaneer feel. The Dame’s outfits become more outrageous as the play progresses, until the final scenes reveal a fantastically luminous ensemble complete with lifebelt attached which even the gorillas of Morocco are scared off by.
The lighting, designed by Ceri James, is enchanting in this production, adding to the fairytale like feel of the pantomime. There are some beautiful scenes where the light changes the atmosphere in an instance. Bow Bell sings ‘Turn again Whittington’, behind a screen projected with images of bells and snowflakes, and King Rat performs in front of a psychedelic moving prism of colour. The use of video projection is extremely effective, taking the audience on Dick’s travels around the world and enhancing the tense atmosphere as the production progresses.
The Torch Theatre have wowed audiences once again with their latest Christmas pantomime. Dick Whittington is a traditional classic.
Until December 30
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