at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich
Not exactly an austerity panto, but this Dick Whittington is set in the grey postwar world of the 1950s. Diego Pitarch's inspired design has an illuminated Mansion House tube sign, and the tiled walls of the London Underground. There's a red phone box stage right for Fairy Bowbells, and manhole covers helpfully inscribed Foul Sewer London.
The transformation from rat-infested underworld to gold-paved streets is distinctly underwhelming, and only three characters have a costume change for the walk-down.
But no corners are cut in the performance; the ten actor-musicians give their all in this, the 13th rock'n'roll pantomime to hit the Wolsey stage.
It never ceases to amaze – a dame at the drum-kit, a cat on the trumpet, and full eight-piece backing band, plus vocals, for the big solo numbers. All drawn from the same super-talented team of ten.
A J Dean, a fresh-faced, winsome Dick, sporting a cheeky smile and the obligatory spotted handkerchief, brings a very authentic rock'n'roll style to the song and dance routines. His Alice is a very energetic Nicola Hawkins; she has a wonderful way with the vocals, too, her First Cut Is The Deepest a highlight amongst the 21 musical numbers.
“Hiya, saucepots !” - it's Sarah the Cook, a man-hungry dame very much in the old-fashioned mould: funny walks, mildly suggestive, easily outraged, besotted with Steve in row B. A superb performance from Sean Kingsley, who has impressive West End credentials. The other comedy star is Tim Bonser as Billy Bungalow, with just the right blend of pathos, physicality and sheer silliness [bubble pipe, rat-a-pult …].
Wolsey favourite Shirley Darroch is back as the good fairy. She has a down-to-earth Cockney delivery, and certainly knows how to sell a song - “Turn, turn”, a clever choice, is excellently delivered.
Jofre Alsina makes a pompous Alderman, and Dan de Cruz, ducking and diving as King Rat, leads an epidemic of rodents, including the Rat Pack of Punks giving their Sex Pistols tribute. CiCi Howells, who'll play Polly Peachum here next year, is a lovely, slinky Taffy the Cat.
The playlist is eclectic: real 50s classics [Tutti Frutti] jostling with Meatloaf, Mud and Bonnie Tyler. “Walking on Sunshine” works very well, as does the high-octane encore “Tiger Feet”.
Peter Rowe's script retains all the key elements of the traditional show – some lovely rhyming couplets, too – but manages to bring sophistication and freshness to it at the same time. Like the music, not everything is retro – both Boris J and George O get a name-check – and as Sarah points out, “it's not all about Dick!”. And there is an ominous sign that last year's gangnam might be this year's twerking.
There's a welcome sprinkling of the surreal – Derek the Fly, a few bars of Cats, a tumbleweed moment – and the self-referential - “Seeing stars ? Not in this panto, mate ...”. Even the sound effects – often proudly flatulent – are the object of the Dame's frustrated fury.
Not so many local jokes this year, but every reference to Dick's home town is met with a proud cheer from the packed Ipswich audience, welcoming back this uniquely enjoyable blend of panto and popular music.
production photograph: Mike Kwasniak