Dick Whittington at the London Palladium – review round-up
Last year, pantomime producing giants Qdos brought festive fun back to the London Palladium with its gloriously excessive Cinderella, which saw seasoned performers Julian Clary and Paul O’Grady flinging smut at each other for three hours in a variety of outrageous costumes. This year, it’s Dick Whittington. The innuendo writes itself.
Put together by the same creative team as last year, including director Michael Harrison and writer Alan McHugh, Dick Whittington features Half a Sixpence stars Charlie Stemp and Emma Williams, dance troupe Diversity, and West End legend Elaine Paige, as well as a handful of returning faces: Clary, the ever-willing Nigel Havers and ventriloquist Paul Zerdin among them.
Some critics had a ball at Cinderella, lauding a visually spectacular show with delectably filthy jokes. The Stage’s Paul Vale called it “a pantomime bursting with glamour, confidence and gloriously excessive production values”. Others, however, thought the smut was a bit much for young audiences.
What have Qdos splashed the cash on this year, a family-friendly festive show, or another bonanza of bright blue costumes and even bluer gags? Do Clary and co. pull it off once again, or is this Dick limp? Is this a perfect Palladium panto, or a full-on festive flop?
Fergus Morgan rounds up the reviews
Dick Whittington – Dicking Around
Last year’s show was less traditional panto, more innuendo-off between Clary and O’Grady. Have Qdos dialled things down this year? Apparently not, but for most critics, that’s nothing to frown at.
“It contains more dick jokes than you can shake a cat at, and Clary once again reigns utterly supreme with a parade of exquisitely outlandish outfits and extremely smutty gags,” reports Clare Allfree (Telegraph, ★★★★). “Put aside misgivings over what conversations you might find yourself having with your inquisitive seven-year-old come curtain fall, and this is an absolute corker of a panto.”
Indeed, most critics are too busy laughing to care. According to Tony Peters (Radio Times, ★★★★) it’s “face-achingly funny”, and according to Daisy Bowie-Sell (What’s On Stage, ★★★★), “unless you’re an absolute prude you will leave the show having guffawed your face off.”
Aside from the humour, there’s not much to McHugh’s script, but even this doesn’t seem to matter.
“The evening is unfettered by plot or character, and relies on spectacle and the ability of its stars to shine so brightly that we won’t notice the absence,” writes Lyn Gardner (Guardian). “But even with a gaping hole where the story should be, this flashy, flamboyant evening is lots of camped-up fun.”
“Maybe the perfect, perfect panto would have a smidgin more story, a molecule more menace and romance,” ponders Dominic Maxwell (Times, ★★★★). “Yet finally it’s inclusive as well as knowing. A notch up from last year’s show, it’s a terrifically happy night at the theatre.”
Not everyone agrees. “Call me Scrooge if you want, but my misgivings about the lack of plot and the clear focus on pleasing adults more than kids prevent me from giving the show full marks,” says Emma Watkins (Broadway World, ★★★★).
Dick Whittington – Famous Faces
Harrison’s staging follows the same casting formula as last year: Julian Clary, plus a gaggle of familiar TV faces and West End performers. This year, we’ve got Nigel Havers and Paul Zerdin again, plus Charlie Stemp, Emma Williams, Elaine Paige, Britain’s Got Talent winners Diversity and panto regular Gary Wilmot.
“Playing the Spirit of The Bells, Clary is sheer pantomime gold, coasting through the plot with feigned indifference and his legendary, lethal and camp delivery,” exalts Paul Vale (The Stage, ★★★★★). “Clary has all the best gags and his sparring with Paige’s eye-rolling Queen is one of the highlights of a show that is packed with laughs.”
“It’s Clary’s night,” agrees Maxwell. “He looks at home in a succession of inexplicably but gorgeously spangly outfits. He adds quips and rudery of his own to Alan McHugh’s script, talk-sings his way through various tunes, turns this all into a parody of itself without ever being merely snide.”
There’s plenty of praise for his supporting cast, too, particularly the game Elaine Page, the dame Gary Wilmot, and dance troupe Diversity.
“Elaine Paige takes time out from her regular slot on BBC Radio Two to lampoon her glittering West End career as the haughty Queen Rat,” reports Vale. “It’s a role Paige accepts gamely, belting out her popular hits with adjusted lyrics to the delight of the audience.”
“As the Dame, seasoned pro Gary Wilmot could probably do this in his sleep, but he commits to it with a big smile, a ton of energy and a virtuosic performance of a ditty listing every London station at breakneck speed,” writes Tom Wicker (Time Out, ★★★).
“The virtuoso ventriloquist Paul Zerdin works the crowd a treat — literally in the sequence in which he brings up a couple from the front row to make them his dummies,” adds Maxwell. “The street-dancing act Diversity, winners of Britain’s Got Talent, would steal most shows. Here, they’re just another wow.”
Dick Whittington – A Festive Fantasia
So, the show prioritises smut over story, and its starry cast have great fun sending themselves up, but is this year’s panto as visually spectacular as last year’s?
“From the enormous, red-eyed rat’s head (voiced by Paul O’Grady) leering out of the darkness, to a red double-decker bus flying over the heads of the audience, the special effects here are genuinely jaw-dropping,” explains Wicker. “Michael Harrison’s production, with its candy-sweet set design and overblown, West End-lunging songs and set-pieces, is basically wired for star wattage.”
“Director Michael Harrison has created a genuine spectacular,” chimes Vale. “There are echoes of the Follies not just in Gary Hind’s playful score, which gives a nod to Sondheim, but also in Hugh Durrant and Ron Briggs’ costumes and Ian Westbrook’s candy-coloured set design.”
“This feels like a homage to the old days of variety and, in particular, to Sunday Night at the London Palladium – but bigger, shinier and infinitely more filthy,” writes Gardner. “I imagine that there is now a nationwide sequin shortage.”
Dick Whittington is full-blown, funny and fabulous, then, but does it capture the Christmas spirit too? Some think it does, Peters calling it “a joyous Christmas treat that leaves you with a warm glow”, and Watkins writing that “will have you stepping out into the crisp London air with a twinkle in your eye and a big smile on your face.”
Others, however, are more equivocal, Bowie-Sell observing that, although fun, “occasionally it feels less like panto, more like a variety act”, and Wicker adding that “if you want a properly community-rooted or more subversive panto, Dick Whittington won’t be for you.”
“But as a machine-tooled reflection of the bright-light blare of central London at Christmas, it’s a sugar rush of a show,” he concludes.
Dick Whittington – Is it any good?
The second edition of Qdos’ Palladium pantos follows in the footsteps of last year’s Cinderella: Dick Whittington is big, bright and full of blue jokes. Its cast, headed by Julian Clary in his element, have bundles of fun, and Michael Harrison’s production has spared no expense.