Review: Dick Whittington (And His Meerkat)

Whilst we all enjoy a panto, for some Christmas just isn’t the same without a trip to the York scene and a few hours at the mercy of Berwick Kaler and his dazzling ensemble

The pantomime here in York has gained a sort of cult status over the years, with regulars travelling into the city year in year out to see it. This year York Theatre Royal is offering Dick Whittington and his Meerkat, directed by Damian Cruden and Kaler, staged  at the Signal Box Theatre and is their first ever pantomime to be staged in traverse.

Considering how difficult it is to rethink the staging of an entire show, especially pantomime which usually follows distinct end-on codes, the staging is fantastic. The result is imaginative and engaging, with the cast working well together using the setting to fuel their energy. As quite a lot of the action happened in the centre, you couldn’t expect the best view at the farthest sides of the theatre – but this was unavoidable with such a long stage, and many efforts were made by the cast, in particular the dancers, to make sure no side of the stage was disadvantaged.

The production value of the show was instantly striking: costumes, set and lighting were detailed and intense, gloriously visible in their complexity from all angles. With only ten rows, this pantomime provides a unique, intimate, even slightly dangerous opportunity to get close to the actors and the action At times, I felt that some of the acting was rather closed in and the cast were underplaying the fun and outrageousness that is usually thrown outward in a pantomime. The in-jokes and ad-libbing were where this was most noticeable.

The cast was superb, especially with pantomime veteran Berwick Kaler playing the dame

The target audience of a pantomime is families so the main question to be answered is ‘was the show entertaining?’ – and it was. It enthralls the audiences while being humorous, and is the kind of thing you want to see having braved the cold weather to get there! One element I felt was lacking in this production was that the story seemed to get rather lost. A pantomime is an excuse to throw both script and plot out of the window, but there always should remain the prevailing story of good against bad, ending with a ‘happily-ever-after’ that provides with it a heart-warming life lesson. As the show closed, Dick Whittington seemed to forget that he was in love, and his Meerkat, Mr Finnikity, forgot about his dreams of going to Africa – whereas the villain, despite being wonderfully portrayed by David Leonard, was never really close to getting the upper hand. These are minor quibbles, but resolving them might have allowed the show to have more impact, and provide the audience with a satisfying conclusion.

The songs and dances were slick, though sometimes a little understated; some routines, while flowing, seemed to lack a properly defined step that complements the fun and silliness of a panto. As talented as the dance team in this production was, it was a shame to see the routines feeling like they were at odds with the mood of the show on occasion. The choreography was fantastic by dance standards, but pantomime demands a cast fully immersed in its wacky world, and routines that focus slightly more on joking and storytelling. Along with this the music was often slightly too loud to be able to distinguish the lyrics, perhaps due to the intimate nature of the production, which was a shame. Despite this, the dancers very talented and obviously enjoying themselves, which made watching them a delight, engaging with the spirit of fun in panto.

Photography by Dick Whittington Company.

In fact, a strength of this performance was the atmosphere:the cast, the musicians, the animals, the audience, even the lights, found friendship and enjoyment together. What went wrong was just as enjoyable as what went perfectly because the energy and pleasure never dropped for a moment.

The cast was superb, especially with pantomime veteran Berwick Kaler playing the dame, and they had with a great sense of physicality and timing. The only comment I could make is that I felt sometime that Kaler relied a little too much on his fame, particularly amongst York panto regulars in the crowd, to make him funny to a wider audience – his looking around with a knowing smile was mostly enjoyable, but sometimes caused a little cringing. He was brilliant, but maybe needed a little nudge to appeal even more to his newer fans alongside his oldest.

Overall, York Theatre Royal, the Signal Box Theatre, and a stunning cast and crew equals a lovely festive treat for all ages, and Dick Whittington and his Meerkat is an event not to be missed.