SALISBURY Playhouse has chosen a traditional pantomime again this year, and the familiar story of Dick Whittington has some clever twists and a modern makeover in the very funny script by Andrew Pollard.
If you choose not to have a female principal boy, it’s essential that the actor in the leading heroic role is handsome, appealing and versatile, so the casting director could hardly have made a better choice than Tom Oakley.
Young Mr Whittington works in Salisbury, but he’s just dropped some very expensive hand-made bricks destined for the cathedral spire, and the chief mason has “let him go.” Just at this crucial moment, Fairy Bowbells flies into the Wiltshire city in search of a hero to rid London of a plague of rats, and recognises Dick as the man for the job.
His mother Wilhelmina (silly Willy to you and me) can’t imagine life without her beloved son, so she follows him to the place where the streets are supposed to be paved with gold.
The rest goes according to the old story. King Rat (played for glamour by the flashy Richard Hurst) plants stolen money on our hero, who is thrown out of Alderman Fitzwarren’s Cheese Emporium. But then the fairy gets Dick’s cat to talk and persuade him to turn back to clear his name. The rest is Lord Mayoral history.
Kieran Buckeridge once again demonstrates his multi-faceted skills, as a hilarious dame, composer and lyricist. He’s about to start a Cameron Mackintosh composing residency at Bristol Old Vic, so local audiences will see and hear lots more of him in the coming months.
His gangly, tall and skinny Mrs Whittington is a triumph, and his walk down costume pays hilarious tribute to the city of Salisbury.
Gemma Wardle, whose CV includes Les Mis, Betty Blue Eyes and other major West End musicals, is a loveable Fairy, combining the Cockney chutzpah of Barbara Windsor with the irresistible vocal heft of a Dolly Parton.
Ella Vale, last year’s fairy, is a ferocious feline with an inexhaustible taste for rat, and Laura Matthews, from Yeovil Youth Theatre via Bristol Old Vic Theatre School to success on the London stage, manages to make Alice Fitzwarren much more interesting than the usual mimsy-wimsy leading lady.
Tim Treslove, fresh from his speedy stand-in leading role in The Recruiting Officer (a place taken by director Gareth Machin for the current Exeter visit), is the bumbling Alderman, Aldi for short, whose rhyming slang drives everyone barmy.
Two teams of six children play the rats, citizens and others in this colourful, funny and inventive pantomime, just the right length and ideal for all the family.
There are no reality TV stars or “big names” in the Salisbury show. It relies on strong characterisation and terrific performances from an ensemble at the top of their game. Rapt faces greeted the old jokes, and the new ones in this delightful production, on until 11th January.