Lawrence Hodgson-Mullings in Dick Whittington at the National Theatre (Photo by The Other Richard)

Beloved panto 'Dick Whittington' goes virtual with National Theatre at Home

Matt Wolf
Matt Wolf
The National Theatre regularly trawls the world repertoire but has only infrequently dipped a raucous toe into arguably this country's best-loved theatrical institution, the Christmas pantomime, or panto. I dimly recall a Cinderella at this address in 1983, when I had only just moved to the UK, and Christmas 2020 saw only the first panto since then - a busy, bustling, openhearted version of Dick Whittington that closed before opening night (so what else is new in these Covid-ridden days) but which will live on via National Theatre at Home from 11 January.
This take on a time-honored panto title comes from co-writers Cariad Lloyd and Jude Christian and was first seen at the Lyric Hammersmith in 2018, extensively revised and updated since then in order to accommodate our plague-ridden era. (Now there's a phrase I bet no one thought they'd be writing when this show was originally birthed.) From an opening in which masked players scrub down the stage and measure distances via enormous rulers, we are never allowed to forget the climate amidst which this production has arisen  - and which, in turn, led to it being shut down prior to its Dec 18 opening night. Used to such split-second changes to the schedule, the National managed to film a preview, and it is that performance which is available online.
Of all genres, panto may be the most frustrating to watch via computer. By its very nature, its knockabout charm benefits from a shared experience in the room, the audience groaning as one at the double entendres all the while hissing the deliberately over-the-top baddy and cheering our warm-hearted hero. Despite occasional visual use made of a particular, and very game, spectator named Mark, this Dick Whittington can't help but keep us at a distance. The production itself possesses sweetness and good will in abundance, but I can well imagine that a gathering strenuousness to proceedings might have felt less marked to those seated within the Olivier auditorium itself. (The second act, in particular, devolves into an effects-laden mishmash.)
Still, the prevailing generosity of spirit is immediately set by Melanie LaBarrie (fondly remembered from the original cast of Matilda) as the deliciously named Bow Belles, who has scarcely appeared before she is extolling "the true spirit of London" - an appeal to kindness that quickly becomes the leitmotif of Ned Bennett's production. Her warmth finds a kindred spirit in the definably sweet Dick of the title (played by Lawrence Hodgson-Mullings), who has made it "through at least three tiers" (!) on his way from Leeds to London and wants the capital to pay back the sheer pleasure in being that Dick transmits. No prizes for guessing the elevated fate that awaits him.
His good will bumps up directly against a gleeful villain in Amy Booth-Steel's ever-snivelling Queen Rat, whose on misfortune depends upon a British love of flatulence, and worse, that runs as deep in the culture as the national  affection for panto. And you can't have a hero called Dick without someone on hand to hint at all manner of lewd uses to which that name might be put. That task falls to the irrepressible Dickie Beau, whose panto dame, here called Sarah, gets the get-up of the night when she shows up wearing a full English breakfast: that, in turn, is somewhere around the moment that she has paid reference to "ladies and gentlemen and all my non-binary friends." The tireless performer elsewhere gives us snippets from Follies as part of an eclectic musical landscape that embraces The Sound of Music and Black Eyed Peas, Ariana Grande and Gilbert and Sullivan.
There are references to support bubbles and TikTok, jokes about a massive, um, election and a climactic kiss in which the young lovers are shielded from one another in accordance with COVID-era dictates. I could have done without the preachy and unnecessary second-act opening number about the realities of the pandemic, and the production as it continues gives off a sense of trying pretty much anything on for size: something further fine-tuning during previews might well have adjusted. (Bennett, it's worth remembering, staged the recent and remarkable London revival of Equus.)
But amid our ever-fractious times, one can't help but applaud the appeal for goodness and unity during difficult times in what Dick tells us late on is "the greatest city in the world." And as we enter a renewed midwinter lockdown, that determined optimism and zest just might represent the best New Year's gift of all.
Photo credit: Lawrence Hodgson-Mullings in Dick Whittington at the National Theatre (Photo by The Other Richard)

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