jack and sarah

Look out behind you! Craig Hollingsworth as Idle Jack and Iain Lauchlan as Dame Sarah the Cook, going up in the world at Coombe Abbey

Dick Whittington has started his journey to become Lord Mayor of London, or at leaste the Belgrade in Coventry, and Roderic Dunnett was there to see him off.

It’s more than a hundred-mile trek from Gloucester to London. First it’s all the hilly ups and downs of the Cotswolds, then the broad Thames Valley or the wetlands of the River Cherwell, then the formidable Chiltern Ridge to stumble up, before you get within a cat’s whisker of London.

But then one young stalwart, a breezy chap (played of course by a girl) is determined to make it in this rags-to-riches tale, full to the brim with cats, rats and lots of laughs for all the family.

It’s time for the Belgrade Panto, and Dick Whittington is one determined laddie who’s convinced London is a salubrious place to be.

But he hasn’t bargained on the rats who are running rife on the streets, rather than in the sewers; or who fancy themselves as pirates and think it would be fun to sink the ship he’s sailing to Morocco.

If there’s Panto fun, it’s coming your way. The hilarious, the scurrilous, the wry, the unexpected, the bizarre, the side-splitting, the tongue-in-cheek and the double-entendre – you don’t expect anything less from a Belgrade Coventry Pantomime. No muck-raking here – just glorious, unbridled zaniness and fun.

The irrepressible Iain Lauchlan is back as Dame Sarah the Cook, with a team of reprobates and allies marshalled by her regular partner and fellow audience favourite Craig Hollingsworth (as the hapless ‘Idle Jack’), in a new show that is bound to have audiences rolling in the aisles.

Iain, kitted out in full, outrageous Dame Sarah makeup and regalia (all this has to be seen to be believed) starts his Press Conference in the wondrous medieval atmosphere of Coombe Abbey, just outside Coventry, as he plans to go on. (‘They should rename it Cook Abbey’ he quips). ‘It’s so quiet in here, I thought someone had died.’ From rat poison, perhaps. 

Of course, if Dame Sarah has anything to do with it, you can guarantee the whole event will centre on tea and scones and cakes and brownies. Coombe Abbey is famous for its afternoon teas, and we are positively saturated with goodies which either Dame Sarah or the Abbey Hotel have cooked up for us. It’s a clever wheeze: of course, we’re going to write nice things as the flapjacks and chocolate dainties slither down.

It’s incredible to think this is Iain’s 22nd panto for the Belgrade. He first turned out in 1980, playing a lesser role with the legendary Reg Dixon and Judy Carne. A few years later he and his then writing colleague, Will Brenton, turned out a series of hits which Iain directed. And though he was back directing again, naladdin 2014ot squeezing out the laughs and guffaws with massive boobs and slurpy lipstick, as soon as Hamish Glen took over as Artistic Director at the Belgrade shortly after the millennium, for the past five years Iain has been creating the best and most memorable Pantomime Dames in the business.

Iain Lauchlan as Widow Twankey and Craig Hollingsworth as Wishee Washee in Aladdin in 2104

Dick Whittington, he says, seems to be popular this year: you can see him at the Birmingham Hippodrome (Mon 19 Dec-Sun 29 Jan) or the Abbey Theatre, Nuneaton (10-21 January). But you can bet your bottom dollar the Belgrade’s will be the one that scores bingo. ‘The Belgrade has a reputation as being one of the best pantomimes around and this year’s production is no exception’, cheered the Hinckley Times of their hit Beauty and the Beast.

Why best? Not least because, as Iain says, the sets and costumes, designed by Mark Walters and Iain in collaboration, are all made by the fantastic Belgrade costume and construction team. ‘The outfits are new every year,’ he says; ‘we’re incredibly fortunate – it makes a wealth of difference.’ No wonder the Belgrade’s blurb can claim, with complete justification, ‘full of spectacular and amazing sets, incredibly extravagant costumes, sing-along songs and magical make-believe.’

It has indeed done so over the past few Christmases: the costumes have been wild, over the top, gorgeously, rapturously colourful. If you’re going to play a Dame, you should go the whole hog. You can tell Lauchlan designs his own make-up, outrageous blue eyelids caked in the stuff, and the most lurid painted face in the business.

And if you’re going to field a couple of sinister minions (Matthew Brock and Eden Dominique as the Queen’s vile and nasty aides Scratch and Sniff), make sure they look pretty black and ugly too. Actually costumes are colour-coded: Dick, for instance, is resplendent in blue and white, and the Alderman gets green, and so on.

Iain is dedicated, utterly committed, to the idea of the traditional panto. Nothing else is good enough. ‘There just aren’t as many traditional shows about as there used to be. There are Commercial shows around today that don’t have any real story’, he sighs. Not for him, though.   

This year’s story is a lot of traditional fayre, mixed with clever wheezes and a clutch of new ideas. Dick plods his way (from the Forest of Dean, in fact) to London to seek his fame and fortune. But as he embarks on this magical adventure, radiant with optimism, he soon discovers that the streets are paved not with gold, but with rats! (Three groups of eight wee – and not so tiny - rats, aged nine to 16, auditioned from schools around as well as actually in Coventry, take it in turns to snatch and thieve, scurry and bite).

‘The kids are really busy’ says Iain. They obviously have plenty to do, as citizens and seafarers – but above all, as rats. Can our unlikely heroes rid London of the evil Queen Rat and her hoard/hordes of little rats, will Dick finally find true love - and can his dream of becoming Mayor of London ever come true?

All this you can find piled high in this terrific yarn: this ‘enchanting tale of fame throttlingand fortune, heroes and villains, cats and rats, for all the family.’

But rest assured, there’s always much more stored away to beef up a Lauchlan Panto. Every time he produces something that’s fresh and heartwarming and original. As he explains, it made sense and more variety to have a Queen Rat (rather than King) - especially when it’s played with suitable fangs and snappy teeth by that clever actress Melonie M’Kenzy

Nothing like a hand around your throat to concentrate the mind.

Queen Rat has set up a robbery for which our Dick gets blamed. No wonder he has to flee.

Hence we find Dick sailing the ocean blue, or at least the Mediterranean blue, as skipper of a ship which then gets grabbed and captured and scuppered by the ubiquitous rat population. Is anywhere safe from them? As a result, there is a scene that takes place under the waves, and features all kinds of eerie UV effects, as Dick wrestles to save his navigational reputation from disaster.

Is Dick done for? Not if cats have their way, for Queen Rat, says Lauchlan, soon finds herself on the way to the sharks – in other words, Davy Jones’s Locker. And good riddance too. 

There’s the seriously good Fairy Bow Bells (Anna Mitcham wields the wand), who magicks Dicks’s reliable cat Tom or Tommy (brought to life by Becky Stone) instantly (no pawing or plodding) up from Gloucester to help deal with the City’s malodorous rat infestation. Our Fairy provides plenty of the sparkle in this show. Why Bow Bells? In fact the story runs that as Dick was climbing Highgate Hill, thinking of giving up and going home, he hears Bow Bells ringing in London, and believes they are sending him a message to return to London. And thank goodness he did. But that’s what good fairies are for.

And no Wizard? Rest assured, there is a real Wizard - Iain Lauchlan, a brilliantly entertaining writer whose numerous TV credits include a long run of Playschool, the very successful Fingermouse series, plus Storytime and Fun Song Factory. Add to that, palpable favourites like Thomas the Tank Engine, Noddy, Bob the Builder, and (you don’t get much better than this) he was the writer of the Bafta Award winning Tweenies. Almost everything he touched, whether wittily penned, beautifully crafted or vividly voiced over, became a children’s hit. If Iain can’t make audiences young and old – that means you and your entire household - cackle and giggle and guffaw, no one can.

Iain is also a leading light of Coventry-based Imagine Theatre, which writes, produces and provides set hire for each of his recent Pantos, and produces Santa Shows for preschool children (2-6 year olds): Santa’s Dizzy Day (featuring Ellie the Elf, Rudolph the red-nosed Reindeer and a cheeky mouse), Santa’s Rusty Robot; and his latest, Santa’s Polka Dot Pirate, which includes Ellie and Rudolph again, sounds like another winner, especially as in addition to their 35-minute running time the youngsters get to meet Santa. You can read about all these on www.imaginetheatre.co.uk. No wonder Iain is planning a brand new online preschool TV channel called ‘Cheeky Chimps TV’ which he aims to launch early in 2017.

Iain’s colleague in Imagine Theatre, Justin Fletcher, ‘children’s TV megastar’, will be also taking his hugely in demand show Justin’s Party to live venues throughout February, March and April  2017. See details on the website.grub up

Iain’s Beauty and the Beast last year broke all box office records for a Belgrade Christmas Pantomime. And the way things are going, you can reckon on Dick Whittington drawing in similar or even heftier crowds. For many showings Lauchlan Pantos book out weeks in advance. 

Cream tea among the laughs for panto stars

For the impossible, laugh-a-minute Idle Jack (Craig Hollingsworth), this is his fifth successive Belgrade Panto. This superbly clever and engaging young actor, a comic tease and treat on every appearance (‘I looked for others, but Craig came cheapest’, mocks the Dame) is guaranteed to bring the roof down, as he has already in Beauty and the Beast, Sleeping Beauty, Jack and the Beanstalk and Aladdin.

‘Some material we’ve used before,’ says Iain - the old jokes that are timeless (with Melone’s evil glinting Queen Rat, does ‘He’s behind you’ become ‘She’s behind you’)? And the inevitable slapstick sequence, without which no Panto would be complete - usually making cakes – has turned into an icing cakes scene. When we’re on board ship, we’ve planned a catchy seafaring song and a pirate dance.’ And of course there have to be references to all sorts of things people will recognise, to arouse the titters: Iain lists Pokemon, Donald Trump, and a load of others trip off the tongue.

How could there not be a great dollop of love interest? Dame Sarah, needless to say, is in the thick of that too. She works for the wealthy Alderman Ivo Fitzwarren (Declan Wilson), and he has a fair and comely daughter, Alice, played by Kelly Agredo. Romance is in the air, for our boy/girl Dick, who has only loyal cat Tom for company, and quickly falls for the irresistible Alice. A future Lord Mayor must surely be partnered by a pretty and faithful wife: the scene is set – Kelly’s beautiful Alice is clearly ripe for wooing.  

The real Dick Whittington (c1354-1423), Iain confirms, did in fact become Lord Mayor of London three times. Hence the ditty, ‘Turn again, Whittington’. In fact some would say he was technically in office four times, for he completed his deceased predecessor’s term of office in 1397 before being elected by popular vote the following autumn. 1397, 1406 and 1419 meant he served under three monarchs – Richard II, Henry IV and Henry V – and having become very well off by training as a Mercer (trader) and dealing in woollen cloth and silks and velvets, luxury goods in great demand, he lent money to all three kings!

Perhaps one of the most impressive of the benefactions Sir Richard gave to his fellow townspeople was a public loo. By the River Thames he built a vast toilet known as Whittington’s Longhouse, which seated 128 people and was ‘emptied’ by the Thames at high tide. Not a river to swim in or swallow, one suspects. In 1604 a rags-to-riches play was written about him, entitled The History of Richard Whittington, of his low byrth, his great fortune, and that formed the basis for the Pantomime version which really took off in the 19th century. The rest, thanks to Dame Sarah alias Iain Lauchlan, is history.  

Tickets for the Belgrade Panto, which runs from Wednesday 23 November to Saturday 7 January, start from just £11 for children and £16 for adults, including a £1 booking fee. (If booked online, no booking fee.) www.belgrade.co.uk/event/dick-whittington-2016-17

There is also a spoof Dick Whittington play for adults, Private Dick Whittington, written by Nick Walker, which runs at Belgrade B2 from Saturday 3rd to Saturday 31st December. Details at www.belgrade.co.uk/event/private-dick-whittington

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