Dick Whittington, London Palladium ★★★★★

Reviewed for Musical Theatre Review:

You do get an awful lot of Dick for your money at the London Palladium. Dick Whittington, Qdos Entertainment’s second pantomime in the venue after last year’s Cinderella, is a love letter to London, to pantomime’s malleable ability to support a variety bill of stars, and to jokes about Mr. Whittington’s anatomic first name.

Everything that made last year’s production so enjoyable has been amplified for this year. Ventriloquist Paul Zerdin reprises his jester role, interspersing the action with a number of stand-up moments and audience participation fun.

Also returning is Nigel Havers, once again playing the role of “befuddled actor Nigel Havers”, as a veteran thesp desperate for his part to grow.

Joining Havers in the self-parody game is Elaine Paige, whose Queen Rat has a number of her most popular Lloyd Webber songs with lyrics changed to comment on her career, from Evita to her Radio 2 show.

Representing the younger end of the West End spectrum, Charlie Stemp is reunited with his Half a Sixpence co-star Emma Williams, the couple playing romantic leads Dick and Alice Fitzwarren.

Their romance is necessarily perfunctory, of course – a point which Alan McHugh’s knowing script refers to with glee – but that is hardly relevant. Stemp’s main role is to be the butt of the Dick jokes, especially those coming from the charmingly wicked mouth of Julian Clary. Another returnee from last year’s production, this year Clary assumes the mantle of the Spirit of the Bells, always looking out for Dick and lending a helping hand when things get hard for him.

Clary’s trademark knowing deadpan delivery allows his jokes to somehow be both smutty and yet also endearing. The innuendos come thick and fast, but while some parents may be concerned, most will be laughing along – there is more than enough content in Clary’s material for children to laugh at too.

Filling out the cast, Gary Wilmot’s Dame, Sarah Fitzwarren, is assured and confident in a role which, in any other panto, would be a satisfyingly starring part.

And while Ashley Banjo’s acting ability as the Sultan is arguably a little limited, the inclusion of his street dance troupe Diversity adds a welcome level of variety that is necessary for the pantomime being hosted by the West End home of variety.

Director Michael Harrison brings the whole proceedings together with supreme cohesion, ensuring the pace never lags and each star signing earns their keep.

Ian Westbrook’s colourful set design, from a candy-themed sweet shop to flying vehicles, provides the perfect backdrop to a collection of costumes that never look anything less than sumptuous.

In a world of commercial panto where other venues often seem to cut corners and hope that nobody will notice, the Palladium’s approach shows that investing in quality design, script and – most importantly – experienced and hardworking stars pays off.

If you don’t love Dick going in to the Palladium, you most certainly will by the end. Dick Whittington sets the standard by which all other pantomimes should be judged.

Continues until 14 January 2018.

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