Review: CUADC/Footlights Pantomime 2023: Dick Whittington and His Cat
Hello boys and girls! Who is ready for some panto?
The story of Dick Whittington and his Cat is a favourite subject of British pantomime. This show took this famous tale and added a twist to it, with Cambridge specific jokes, liberal political statements, and not a straight old white man of a main character in sight.
The plot surrounds Dick Whittington as he sets up to leave his comfortable and boring life in Cambridge and head off to London, inspired by a political journalist (and somewhat of a crush) Julie Fitzwarren. As he packs up his things into a comically cartoonish red sack on a stick, his adventures begin. He meets his sidekick on the way, defeats a villain and falls in love. The sentence that could sum up almost any panto, which is why it’s great. This show takes those very panto-esque elements and brings them together in a great performance.
The show excels (get it? haha… no? watch the show and you will) at making puns funny enough to make you laugh and stupid enough to laugh at yourself for laughing. Obviously, Dick jokes were expected and the script did not disappoint. Always accompanied by a character looking disapprovingly at the laughing audience, they were a delight. And all the Cambridge specific jokes were definitely enjoyed by the audience. Overall the jokes were great and they felt well placed in the script, but there were times when the actors didn’t leave the audience enough time to laugh, which was a shame. A great running joke throughout the show was Pauline – a random audience member who got picked by every single character, from being flirted with by Dame, to getting to ask Dom questions about Julie’s political campaign. I am guessing this part of the show will be very different every night, but you can expect plenty of audience interactions, so get ready to join in. Although we were confused at times what the actors wanted us to yell, the spirit was there and it was fun.
The cast was fantastic. Dick Whittington, played by the brilliant Isabel Beresford-Cole, made a sweet and funny protagonist. There was just enough sincerity and exaggeration in her portrayal of this character, and her singing was just phenomenal. With vocals like that I wish she had stronger songs to display the power of her voice. Another actor with fantastic singing was Joseph Lucas, in the role of Nigel Oliver. He undoubtably had the best song of the show and was delightful throughout. Nigel was a brilliant villain. With the right amount of charisma and theatrical flair, he was one of the audience’s favourites. Ava Fitzhugh, as Mint, having debuted in the freshers musical, is showing great musical talent and was a pleasure to watch. Hopefully we will see more of her in other shows.
Yet another incredible voice was that of Matthew Weatherhead, playing Doomsday. His song was definitely one of the highlights of the show. His character was amazingly written and was funny in every scene. His love story with Dame Whittington was incredibly charming. And even though I was sad she didn’t end up with Pauline, the fairy-tale ending was lovely. Lizzy Riley’s Dame was hilarious. Her energy and engagement with the audience were excellent in this demanding role. She was whimsical and marvellous. With heavy makeup and a colourful costume, she looked the part. I only wish more costumes were as extravagant as hers, as the show lost a bit of the panto feel with the lack of camp outfits.
Cat by Louis Hadfield was fantastic. With snappy one-liners and great delivery, he was captivating to watch. His mentions of the seven lives he has lived before this one were witty and the scouse accent added a charming touch of authenticity. Julie, played by Alice Roberts, was a wonderfully stereotypical politician. And her character development added depth to the narrative. Her rap in the end was a pleasant surprise and the energy was amazing, although unfortunately, we couldn’t hear her that well. Another great addition to the cast was Harrison Gee as Dom. His amazingly bad flirting with Dick and overall chemistry were great to watch. And his realistic and sceptical nature provided a good juxtaposition to Julie.
Who really stole the show was Dog, portrayed by James Allen. He was simply stunning. From the genius costume (I won’t spoil it for you, it deserves to be seen in person) to his unenthusiastic barking turned into existential crisis, he played the part so well. With only one or two lines in the whole show, he managed to command the audience’s attention with a magnetic stage presence. His facial expressions and body language in the background of every scene were just “chef’s kiss”. The background was brilliant during the whole show. Every character was doing something and wherever you looked on stage, you would see the actors fully engaged. A person choking and receiving the Heimlich manoeuvre in the background of the wonderfully messy double date was an especially nice touch.
Breaking the fourth wall and talking about the show being a panto was possibly done a bit too many times. One of this remarks self-criticised the show for being slow-paced, which I wouldn’t agree with on the whole. I might even go as far as to argue that the show was slightly rushed towards the end. I would say though that the scene changes were a bit too long. The use of two cubes painted on different sides as various objects, mainly tables and benches, was interesting and was executed well artistically, but slowed down the scene changes significantly and felt weird and, frankly, kind of unnecessary. The whole set left me with some questions. Mainly, did the drawings of London’s skyline and trees have to move up and down so much? Why did Hyde park look identical to the forest? And why, oh why, was there a giant light bulb?
From the technical point of view, the show somewhat struggled and felt unpolished. The sound was a bit off. The loudspeakers made random noises, some actors were overpowered by the music and there were moments of static feedback. These little incidents were unfortunate, as the sound was mostly good and the music and singing were exciting to listen to. Similarly with the lights, although mostly executed well, something seemed off. Some follow spots didn’t quite follow the actors and there were scenes were the lighting choices didn’t seem logical to me. Although some of the accidental mishaps were luckily hidden among the deliberate ones, overall there were problems which would be expected on opening night, but not on the second day of the show.
A huge shoutout goes to the writers, Jude Crawley, Naima Clarvis and Toria White. Despite some flaws, the script was great. Raising surprisingly many political topics, including anti-homeless infrastructure, global warming and gender inequality, the writers still managed to keep it light and funny. For instance, the Taylor Swift lyrics exchange was hilarious, although seemed under-appreciated by the audience. With the show being just over two hours, it didn’t feel that long and nothing seemed out of place.
Opting for a not so fairy-tale of a story, but making it in a fairy-tale way, this show has almost everything you would expect from a pantomime: a lovable main character, naïve and sweet love stories, a fan-favourite villain and plenty of audience interactions. I would definitely recommend.
CUADC/Footlights Pantomime 2023: Dick Whittington and His Cat is showing from 22nd of November to 2nd of December at the ADC Theatre. Book your tickets here.
Featured image credits: Mary O’Shaughnessy