Spirit of the bells rings loud and clear

Paparazzi bait: Her Majesty Queen Rat (Joan Collins) getting to grips with panto

Dick Whittington

Birmingham Hippodrome

****

YOU do wonder if you can stud a show with too many stars. Dick Whittington has a whole galaxy of them - many more I suspect than any other panto in Britain can muster.

There is Hi-Di-Hi's Jeffrey Holland, from Walsall, as the dame, Nigel Havers and Joan Collins as King and Queen Rat, Keith Harris as the rat catcher and Julian Clary as the Spirit of the Bells.

On paper this should have been a fabulous romp through pantoland but somehow it was not quite got there, close but no cigar. It was almost as if having five marquee names was seen as enough and the detail could look after itself.

The undoubted star, the crowd's favourite, was Clary who produces some wonderful understated touches as the camp spirit. His arrival in a noisy, smoke and flame belching Thunderbirds rocket certainly had the audience wide awake by the time the sequined spirit minced out through the hatch.

His swimming sequence was another gem particularly as he ad libbed his way through the late appearance of Dick Whittington and his rendition of Wandering Star has to be seen and heard to be believed.

He was closely followed in the popularity stakes, measured by cheers at the end, by Nigel Havers as King Rat who takes hamming to an art form revelling in his role as a baddy - he is not particularly wicked or even nasty but he produces plenty of laughs and interaction with the audience.

Before the opening Keith Harris saw his role as being the traditional variety act doing a turn but his turns with both Orville and Cuddles were among the highlights, perhaps showing us the simple pleasures we have lost with the demise of variety shows.

Spirit of the Bells (Julian Clary) with Whittington's traditional cat (Lukus Alexander)

He also produced a lot of the humour aimed at younger children. Many of the jokes had gone straight over the heads of the youngsters - but their passage had not gone unnoticed  which left a few parents, aunts and uncles, grans and grandads with a few awkward questions to field.

Jeffrey Holland did his job as Dame Felicity Fitzwarren. Holland is an excellent dame but the script hardly did much to exploit the genre.

Joan Collins, a true superstar if ever there was one, is in her first panto which at 78 is no mean feat, not that you would ever guess her age from looking at her. Mere mortals are just left to wonder about the possibility of a pact with the devil . . .   The show had been going quite a time before she arrived and to be honest she was a little pedestrian at the start but seemed to get a little more into both the sprit and pace of panto as the show went on.

Dick had only opened three days earlier and there were still a few glitches that needed sorting out. There were times when the otherwise excellent orchestra under Robert Willis drowned out dialogue and a gauze curtain mysteriously came down and went up again during a ghost scene for no rhyme nor reason. These will undoubtedly be quickly ironed out. 

More fundamental though was a mish mash of a script which, even for panto, had a rather loose and weak plot which seemed to be scenes assembled together into a show rather than a solid storyline. 

King Rat (Nigel Havers) in his Sunday best sets about frightening the children

For example a trip to Morocco suddenly popped into conversation and off they all went. No explanation, no reason . . . it says Morocco in the script so that's where we are going - entire cast, rats and all.

 There were also a lot of references to I'm a Celebrity Get Me  Out of Here where Havers was a celebrity until he got out in time for rehearsals. If you never watch the dreary programme then the endless references were lost.

Meanwhile the show has a very personable Dick in Liam Tamne and a pretty Alice in Kathryn Rooney plus plenty of rats and children to flood the stage when needed. along with an excellent chorus

The panto also looked good with flamboyant costumes, solid scenery - there was even a door you could actually slam - and plenty of smoke and fireworks.

All the elements were there but Dick does not quite live up to the undoubted promise and potential it contains. That being said it is an entertaining evening of traditional panto . . . and there is still  plenty of time for time for a tweak here and there and a bit of polish - it runs to 30-1-11. 

Roger Clarke

Second house . . .

****

CAN you have too many big stars in a pantomime? That's the question uppermost in my mind during the media night interval of Britain's biggest panto with a cast list boasting Joan Collins, Nigel Havers, Julian Clary, Jeffrey Holland and Keith Harris with his puppets Orville and Cuddles.

You felt the script had been written to give them all a chunk of the limelight commensurate with their various stations in showbiz, and for a time it didn't seem to be working. It was about 25 minutes into the action before the glamorous Ms Collins stepped out of a giant glitterball, perhaps showing a little too much leg for a 77-year-old, and the audience were urged to boo Queen Rat.

 This is, of course, Joan's panto debut, so perhaps not too surprising that she was a shade off the pace, though it has to be said she looked gorgeous in a much more flattering purple costume at the start of the second act, on board a ship, the Proud Mary. In 1997 The Queen presented her with the OBE....here that could mean Old But Elegant?

Keith Harris  and Orville bringing old fashioned variety to traditional panto

Joan plays Queen Rat alongside Nigel Havers' King Rat, though neither are particularly nasty, but there is a right royal performance from Julian Clary as Spirit of the Bells. The gay actor wears a variety of remarkable costumes and steals the show....the shipwreck scene where he appears to be swimming alongside Dick Whittington, high above stage, is a winner.

Although not one of the megga stars, Keith Harris enjoys the warmest audience reaction near the finale when he performs with his cheeky monkey puppet, Cuddles. The children love it.

 Handsome Liam Tamne sings superbly as Dick Whittington - even though, as Havers jokingly but correctly points out, he doesn't appear on the panto posters with the stars - while Solihull's Kathleen Rooney (Alice Fitzwarren) and Walsall's Jeffrey Holland (the Dame) are excellent.

Produced and directed by Jonathan Kiley with Robert Willis's musical direction, Dick Whittington runs to 30.-1.11

Paul Marston

Century of pantos

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