Dick Whittington review at the London Palladium – ‘Julian Clary is pantomime gold’
Last year, Qdos Entertainment brought pantomime back to the Palladium in grand style with its production of Cinderella. That show was a critical and commercial success and the same team are back this year with the most London-centric of pantomime stories, that of Dick Whittington and his rat-catching cat. Author Alan McHugh may have heavily edited the story, losing the Gloucester prologue and cutting Alderman Fitzwarren, but otherwise all the usual plot points are in place.
Charlie Stemp appears supremely confident as the titular hero, and it’s easy to understand why the West End embraced his easy, open charm in the recent revival of Half a Sixpence. An impressive dancer, he slips into Karen Bruce’s dynamic routines with energy and grace, accompanied by his leading lady from that same show, Emma Williams. They make a strong pair of romantic leads, it’s just a shame that McHugh’s script doesn’t give them a little more time together.
Ventriloquist Paul Zerdin and ‘housewives’ favourite’ Nigel Havers proved hits in last year’s Cinderella and return in much the same roles, with a similarly effective result. 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. It’s a role Paige accepts gamely, belting out her popular hits with adjusted lyrics to the delight of the audience.
The star of this gig, though, is Julian Clary. 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. 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.
One of the criticisms levelled at last year’s spectacular was the distinct lack of diversity in the casting. This has been wisely addressed, notably with the inclusion of the street dance team Diversity, led by Ashley Banjo as the Sultan of Morocco, and Gary Wilmot as a supremely confident dame, Sarah The Cook. Wilmot holds his own against some pretty fierce comedy competition, but it’s Banjo and his team, integrating their distinctive style of dance into the storyline, who get the loudest applause of the night.
For his part, director Michael Harrison has created a genuine spectacular. 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 is a show pumped with star talent that revels in extravagance for extravagance’s sake. You could level criticism as Clary’s heavy innuendo in a family show, but – to be honest – kids are generally far more robust than we take them for and both Clary and Harrison know this.