Review: Dick Whittington (And His Meerkat)

Familiar faces, new surroundings: Berwick Kaler and Martin Barrass at the NRM. Photographs: Anthony Robling
12 Dec 2015 @ 10.55 am
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Dick Whittington (And His Meerkat), National Railway Museum, York

Till Jan 24


More details and tickets

Opinion could well be divided about this ‘away’ production of York Theatre Royal’s pantomime – divided, that is, by the railway line running bang through the middle.

With the revamped theatre not available until April, Berwick Kaler and his long-running companions have had to decamp, although the camp ingredients remain, along with glorious silliness, tremendous energy and an unflagging sense of fun.

The temporary Signal Box Theatre was used for The Railway Children in the summer, hence that dividing line – and hence too the audience split into two with banked seats on either side.

Berwick and co-director Damian Cruden, along with designer Mark Walters (stunning frocks this year, especially the boat dress… oh and the Mind The Gap dress too), have made an artistic virtue out of a difficulty.

Rise to the challenge

Meet the meerkat: AJ Powell as Mr-Finickerty
Meet the meerkat: AJ Powell as Mr-Finickerty

Back in the summer, Berwick was telling anyone who would listen how useless this setting would be for pantomime.

Yet he and the Theatre Royal team rise to the challenge and present a show that is, in the vein of this annual treat, both the same old rubbish and very different.

The ‘same old’ comes in the treasured daftness, bits of adlibbing and the presence of David Leonard as the baddie, in this case Herman Vermin, Suzy Cooper as Charlotte Cheapskate and the crazily energetic Martin Barrass as Willy Polony and Mayor Cheapskate (plus a surprise extra role that delighted young children in the audience).

All aboard the good ship panto: Berwick and the gang sail into The Signal Box Theatre
All aboard the good ship panto: Berwick and the gang sail into The Signal Box Theatre

Berwick is Paloma Polony, mother to Willy – so it’s mam and boy all over again. Vincent Gray makes for an appealing Dick Whittington, while Harry Hughes plays a duped archaeologist with the politically sourced name of Ed Stone.

And not to forget a most inspired bit of casting: AJ Powell as Mr Finickerty the Meerkat. If, like this writer, you thought a meerkat was a thin idea, prepare to be proved perfectly wrong.

And let’s not forget all those lovely rats, too.

Vibrant music and dance

The nautical ensemble
The nautical ensemble

The difference comes in the closeness of cast and audience, and in the difficulties of acting to two audiences at once and in designing a set that can be seen through.

Both challenges are surmounted.

The sets slide on and off on wheeled sections of stage, pushed by the non-stop crew (on a personal note, well done Freddie Hall), and comic mileage is spun from what can and can’t be seen from either side.

The dancers are very up close and seem more vibrant than usual, and musical director Elliot Styche and his team make for a funky band: live music really lifts a pantomime, especially when it is this good.

Boo! Hiss! David Leonard as Herman Vermin
Boo! Hiss! David Leonard as Herman Vermin

The plot is ridiculous but in a pleasing way, there is a smart topical gag at the expense of York’s moaning mayor, a nice opening two-man comedy turn from Kaler and Barrass, a great underwater sequence, and there is even still a film: Look North’s Harry Gration does his now customary turn, while Berwick grumps it as the Old Gentleman – the role he missed out on in The Railway Children, thanks to illness.

The second half works better than the first (the hot tub is a tremendous treat) and more comic mileage could have been made of the audience being so close.

But there is very much to enjoy in this turbo-charged go-kart of a show, including a fairly outrageous ‘back passage’ joke.

There won’t be another one like it, so do go along.