This year’s festive offering from the Oxford Playhouse gets the season off to grand start. Dick Whittington and his Cat, written and directed by Steve Marmion, is unapologetically preposterous, packed with puns, slapstick, glitter, double-entendres and heart-warming plot twists, all performed to a soundtrack of reworked popular songs and the laughter of the involved audience.
This is definitely panto in all its traditional glory: there are dance routines, power ballads, shaving foam accidents, audience participation pieces, and an epic struggle between good and evil.
It must be a bit of a challenge to accommodate a traditional pantomime on the relatively confined Playhouse stage, but this production feels quite lavish and eventful even with a small cast – the ensemble are strong and the sets and costumes are beautifully made. This is definitely panto in all its traditional glory: there are dance routines, power ballads, shaving foam accidents, audience participation pieces, and an epic struggle between good and evil. Sweets are thrown and no expense - or feat of imagination - is spared on the Dame’s many costumes. It’s funny, with good topical jokes and pleasingly risqué asides, peppered with references to popular culture and daring political sallies.
Part of the fun, of course, is seeing how fast-and-loose panto writers have decided to play with the story. Marmion’s script takes cheerful liberties with the Whittington legend to good effect, working on the principle that no panto has ever been the worse for a few extra pirates, and adding in a mayoral-ambition sub-plot, a marauding monkey and an unexpected aquatic deus ex machina. Structurally, on the other hand, it’s so by the book (Aristotle’s Aesthetics of Panto, I think) that it’s mildly baffling that the principal boy is, well, a boy, but Ricky Oakley steps up to the part with endearing charm as a keen but helpless hero who can’t even tie his own shoelaces. Adrianna Bertola’s intelligent Alice Fitzwarren is a welcome update on the ingenue love interest, while Paul Barnhill as Sarah the Cook is cast (or baked) in the mould of the great pantomime Dames, elevating the character beyond slapstick and innuendo with a dash of strength and pathos. Alessandro Babalola’s intentionally show-stealing acrobatic cat brings the audience straight on-side, and Max Olesker is a memorable villain with an ingenious Lady Gaga tribute to perform. The cast seem to be having a great time, and it’s hard not to get caught up in the atmosphere of excitement and enthusiasm when treated to an unexpected Spice Girls medley.
This was my five-year-old’s first panto trip, and while I don’t think she could make head or tail of the plot, she was delighted by the characters’ antics, the fabulous outfits and the ample opportunities to yell at grown-ups being silly. The Playhouse have gone all-out to make their little visitors welcome, with toys in the circle bar, raised seats, and the sale of highly desirable LED wands in support of the youth theatre programmes which provide the young actors in the show’s ensemble. Long may it continue; Panto is a wonderful, bizarre tradition, and its enduring spirit of misrule and gentle mockery remains a tonic for all ages.