When Is It On?
This production of Dick Whittington and his Cat is running at the Hackney Empire until January 5th
Who Made It?
This production was written and directed by Susie McKenna, who has been behind every Hackney Empire pantomime since 1998. She is assisted by several regular collaborators, including songwriter Steven Edis, musical director Mark Dickman and designer Lotte Collett.
What’s it About?
In the aftermath of World War 2, the Empire Windrush arrives in London full of immigrants seeking a new life in the city. One of these is Dick Whittington (played by Tarinn Callender). He reunited with his mother, Dame Sarah (played by Clive Rowe) and finds a job in a shop ran by Alderman Firzwarren (played by Tony Whittle) and his feisty daughter Alice (played by Christina Tedders). Our hero is aided by the Fairy Bowbells (played by Sue Kelvin), who supports in in various ways, including turning his pet cat into an energetic half-human, half-feline called Uncle Vincent (played by Kat B).Unfortunately for Dick, he also attracts the unwanted attention of the villainous Queen Rat (played by Annette McLaughlin), who cooks up several schemes to ensure Dick won’t foil her plans to take over London.
(Note: This review contains spoilers. The formulaic nature of pantomimes (or pantos for short) is part of their appeal, but the reveal of key comedy and action scenes could be seen as spoilerific for those who want to see these fresh)
Since 1998, the Hackney Empire pantomime has become a major Christmas event in London’s East End. The prolific writer/director Susie McKenna has consistently produced pantomimes which combine the traditional wacky formula of songs and slapstick with creative updates and strong messages. Her latest production is a new take on the classic British panto Dick Whittington, which turns the real life story of a medieval London mayor into a fairytale about a young man who finds fame, fortune and love in the city. McKenna puts a unique spin on the familiar story, following most of the traditional beats whilst keeping things fresh, engaging and comedic. The 2019 production of Dick Whittington and his Cat represents another excellent pantomime from McKenna and her team.
No-one goes to a panto for the story, but there is just enough to provide focus and coherence here. The big selling point of this production is the Post-War setting, with Dick being one of the Carribean immigrants who arrived in Britain on the Windrush after the war. According to the programs, this twist was inspired by the story of Sam King, a Windrush immigrant who eventually became Lord Mayor Of Southwark. However, anyone who wants a detailed exploration should expect disappointment, as the history of the era is handled in a simplistic fashion. The broad basics of Post-War life are acknowledged, such as the rationing, the racial prejudice against black and Irish people, and the need to rebuild after the war, but otherwise there is little for historians. That said, this is not the production for these people. Covering the history in too much detail would case the production to become a play rather than a pantomime, and where's the fun in that? There are also some amusing allusions to the real Whittington and even a reference to the hospital in Highgate named after him. No-one goes to a pantomime to learn, but if any children are inspired to examine the history of Hackney, Dick Whittington and the Windrush immigrants, that will always be a good thing.
However, pantos are always about style over substance, with music, comedy and action allowing the Hackney pantomime team to turn a 20 minute story into a 2 hours plus extravaganza. As usual, the panto is crammed with familiar songs (old and new) which are somewhat connected to the story. Dame Sarah belts out "And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going" and "Good as Hell", Fairy Bowbells sings classic Motown songs, whilst Queen Rat has a villain song which mashes up elements of "7 Rings" and "Bad Guy", and also covers "Sweet but Psycho". Some of the musical choices are genuinely inspired. An early song is based on "London Is The Place To Be", the calypso anthem featured in the Paddington films (another brightly coloured celebration of immigrants in Britain). Meanwhile, the use of "Rewrite the Stars" as Dick and Alice's love song highlights the parallels between their experience and Phillip and Anne's star-crossed romance in that film. These numbers provide a bit more depth and substance than you would expect in the pantomime genre, whilst keeping the basic sense of fun created by talented actors singing familiar songs.
The best thing about this production is the cast. All the lead stars have extensive stage experience, and it shows throughout. As Dick, Tarinn Callender is a likeable hero, and his recurring cover of "The Impossible Dream" brings heart to the human element of the story. The Irish-accented plays a feisty take on Alice Fitzwarren, a more active character who wants to see the world. Her voice is the weakest of the cast, but her cover of "Higher Love" late in the first act proves strong. Annette McLaughlin chews the scenery as Queen Rat whilst Sue Kelvin is a pleasingly flamboyant Fairy Bowbells. Both have no trouble speaking their lines in Verse and are really enjoying themselves on stage. Meanwhile, Hackney panto regular Kat B is excellent as Uncle Vincent the Cat, even if the character is a lot less active in the story than cats should be in Dick Whittington retellings, he is a consistently lively and performer. His highlight is an impressive cover of the Disney classic "Everybody Wants to Be A Cat", where he replicates the jazzy growl of original singer Scatman Crothers whilst also providing something unique However, the one actor who truly makes the production worth seeing is resident Dame Clive Rowe, appearing in his 13th Hackney panto. It’s not hard to see why Rowe is one of Britain’s most iconic dames. Outside panto, Rowe often plays imposing characters (he played the sinister Papa Ge in the West End version of Once On This Island and McKenna's 2009 revival), so it’s a real treat to see him go “all buns glazing” into the role of uninhibited baker Dame Sarah, providing sweets to the audience and having a chat with a random theategoer in the stalls. The real test of a Panto is whether it can keep the audience engaged throughout, and the cast all succeed in keeping our attention.
The sets and visuals are strong throughout the production. The first act takes place in London and replicates the drab, bombed out colours of the era whilst keeping the set warm and inviting. For the second half of the show, things take a more fantastical turn as our five leads go under the sea and help a mermaid find an extremely valuable shell. This cause the Post-War theme to be dropped almost entirely (which is a shame), but has positive side effects. Mermaid Maia (played by Jemma Geanaus) is a lively and spirited princess, and a creative update of the Sultan who usually seeks Dick's help in the second half of Dick Whittington pantomimes. She combines a desire to look after her domain with an unlikely romance with Uncle Vincent. The underwater and tropical island imagery used in these scenes is lovely and surprisingly atmospheric.
The show also features some impressive special effects. The quick change used to turn an ordinary but large cat into Uncle Vincent is pretty impressive, and the shipwreck which ends act one adds enough danger to keep us invested in the story (there is never any genuine danger in pantomimes, but there should be just enough to leave audiences wondering how the show will get to its happy ending). The wire work used for Maia the Mermaid and Fairy Bowbells is effectively fluid, and there is a memorable action scene where a cute baby gorilla is turned into a giant monster for Dick and his friends to fight. However, the most memorable is a simple but impressive effect which opens wash act, as the screen turns translucent to reveal the characters behind it. It’s pretty simple, but communicates the fairytale tone with wonderful efficiency - it really creates the sense that this is a fantasy world. The costumes are pretty grand as well, with Dick and Alice getting pleasingly authentic 1940s fashions, whilst Vincent the Cat has a fishy tie to accompany his cat tail and ears. To the surprise of no one, Dame Sarah has all the grandest costumes, shifting from giant yellow and green dresses to purple outfits, Carmen Miranda-inspired tropical headdresses and a grand wedding dress inspired by the pearly kings and queens of the East End. The fairy tale designs in panto are merely a coat hanger for all the music and comedy, but the are pretty effective in this regard, supporting the tone whilst providing the magic and wonder that could also work in a more serious production.
Despite the old fashioned setting, the humour is often very modern, with intentionally anachronistic jokes about Just Eat adverts, Primark and Fleabag. There is also a healthy streak of political humour, fitting given the fact the show premiered in the midst of the British general election campaign. Queen Rat has a henchman called Boris (played by Tom Lloyd), and this leads to several digs at notoriously self-serving Conservative British prime minister Boris Johnson (As Queen Rat tells him “If you lie often enough, some people will believe anything you say”). Johnson’s recent resounding win in this election will probably lead to this satire gaining a more vicious edge, but it still stays within the gentle and upbeat tone of the show. However, whilst the political jokes are amusing in their way, the most powerful messages come at the end, as the cast instructs the audience to “listen to the children” and improve the world by “speaking out wherever you go”. With its celebration of immigrants, and messages about challenging discrimination and looking after the natural world, Dick Whittington and his Cat communicates a strongly progressive set of politics, but it is never preachy, with things staying broad enough to please audiences regardless of political persuasion.
Aside from the story and messages, there is plenty of silly jokes and broad farce which can appeal to all ages. Sarah and Uncle Vincent throw cream pies at Alderman Fitzwarren, Alice tries disguising herself as a man in order to go sailing, and the characters always remain a few steps behind the audience. There are several lines which adults have heard a few times before, but are still funny (“I don’t mind dying. I just don’t want to be there when it happens") We also her a few saucy innuendos around Dick’s name, but these are tame compared to the filth Julian Clary provides in the London Palladium pantos, and kids won't have a problem with them. As you may expect, plenty of jokes will cause more serious viewers to groan with embarrassment, but the sheer energy and enthusiasm makes this a pretty amusing production.
In the grand panto tradition, the entertainment goes on for a bit beyond the inevitable happy ending. We are treated to an interactive cat song called "Cool Cat Chat", a sequence where Dame Sarah reads our birthday notices and thanks the band for their hard work, and a grand wedding for all three of the romantic couples. If things drag a bit at this point, the energetic concluding cover of Kool and the Gang's "Celebration" makes it all worthwhile. It is pointless to judge Panto by the standards of more traditional storytelling, but Dick Whittington and his Cat succeeds as pure entertainment. The lack of story can cause things to drag at times, but there are always impressive songs, amusing jokes and impressive effects just around the corner. It is certainly the escapist entertainment which the British public require right now.
The Hackney Empire production of Dick Whittington and his Cat provides all the family friendly fun you would expect from a panto, with a charming and charismatic cast providing plenty of amusing comedy and catchy songs. Even if the production could have done more with its Post-War setting, it still has interesting themes and ideas, and a magical atmosphere which make it satisfying for those who prefer more conventional forms of theatre. Dick Whittington and his Cat is definitely worth seeing, whether you are a keen pantomime geek or totally unfamiliar with the genre.