Grumpy dads in Jam along with Pudsey…panto a big hit for all the family

Dick Whittington, New Victoria Theatre, Woking

WHEN Paul Weller wrote The Jam’s 1980 No.1 hit Going Underground, I doubt if he ever imagined it would crop up in a pantomime in his home town.

Quite how a song slating government policy on nuclear weapons ends up being sung in a jaunty style by a guy in a furry hat/mask and a villain’s cloak is anyone’s guess – but Dave Lynn’s King Rat also gives the same treatment to The Clash’s London Calling.

THEY’RE IN FRONT OF YOU – panto cast with Pudsey the dog

Maybe it’s a way to appeal to the “dads and grumpy granddads” who Idle Jack (Stephen Mulhern) urges to “at least look like you want to be here” in the first scene, but the organisers needn’t have worried. Dick Whittington is a panto triumph – even for self-confessed grumps like me.

As ever the team behind the New Victoria Theatre have landed a big star and this year it’s not a soap legend but a dancing dog. While owner and trainer Ashleigh Butler does most of the work as Dick’s love interest Alice, the undoubted attraction as far as the audience is concerned is Pudsey. The cheer when the canine victor of TV’s Britain’s Got Talent first took to the stage was proof of that.

However, the usual buzzing panto atmosphere didn’t put the pooch off his stride – he lapped up the applause as he (with Ashleigh’s help) completed several sets of dancing which were good enough to land him a place on Strictly next.

And if incorporating punk anthems and having a dog as the star are not groundbreaking enough, how about an epic underwater 3D sequence? The audience are issued with 3D glasses for the second half and what follows is an incredible trip through the sea with Tommy the Turtle meeting everything from fish shoals and bubbles to a shark and stingray, many of which seem to hover over the head of the person in front. It’s a truly stunning touch.

But don’t worry too much, there’s plenty of traditional panto fun too. Mulhern’s Idle Jack is the hardest working character as he keeps the laughs flowing with an endless stream of one-liners (“Do you want a tarka masala? It’s like a tikka masala but otter…”), audience banter and magic tricks.

Sarah the Cook played by the marvellous Eric Potts is the panto dame to outdo all others with each of around a dozen costume changes getting ever more outrageous – a bit like her/his steady flow of innuendo.

Michael Pickering has the difficult job of playing the title role but not being the main character, although his Geordie version of Dick hits just the right note between romantic hero and wide-eyed newcomer in the big city.

For someone with no theatrical training, Ashleigh does a great job as Alice – she may never make a top singer or actor but she has a very engaging presence and her time in front of huge TV audiences has stood her in good stead.

In fact there’s no weak link in this cast. Lynn’s King Rat pitches his villainy just right – as well as providing those ‘Oh no you don’t’ moments – while Kimberley Ensor as Fairy Bowbells and Anthony Houghton as Alderman Fitzwarren keep things ticking along nicely. Ben Goffe as the tiny captain provides plenty of laughs (mainly at the expense of his small stature), Kayleigh Wilson’s Tommy the Cat gives Pudsey a feline run for his money, and the ensemble groups – both adults and youngsters – play a major part in bringing the whole thing to life.

As regular New Victoria Theatre panto-goers will expect, the costumes and sets are nothing short of spectacular, the rocking ship being so realistic during the storm scene that there might well have been a few cases of seasickness in the audience.

The music too is well chosen (aside from maybe The Jam and The Clash) with Take That’s Rule The World, a Village People medley of Go West and In The Navy, Holly Valance’s Kiss Kiss, and One Direction’s What Makes You Beautiful being well suited to panto style.

But the best was a superb Moroccan version of Psy’s Gangnam Style complete with dancing featuring the full cast. Like the panto, it’s cheesy, glitzy, infectious, funny and downright entertaining.

Dick Whittington runs at the New Victoria Theatre, Woking, until Sunday January 6.

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About the Author: Barry Rutter