Market Drayton Festival Centre until Sat 23 February
February half-term is traditional panto time for the Market Drayton Amateur Operatic & Dramatic Society and this year’s production of Dick Whittington at the Festival Centre offers a welcome late-winter tonic. It’s a wonderfully warm-hearted show, full of colour and cheering humour.
Arriving in London carrying his trademark bag of earthly goods over his shoulder on the end of a stick, Dick meets a cat and loads of rats and a beautiful girl to fall in love with. Accused of theft, he leaves London but Fairy Bow Bells gives him pause for thought with ‘Turn again, Whittington, thrice mayor of London’ and instead he runs off to sea to seek his fortune.
There are ear-bashing songs, energetic dance routines, double entendres, and puns aplenty. There are even a few local references: when Dick’s boat capsizes in a storm, they’re not sure whether they’ll wash up in the Bahamas or Tyrley Locks.
The music is largely provided by a four-piece band, led by musical director Matt Baker (who also co-directs, with Ali Parrington). It features numerous pop favourites alongside surprises like opening with ‘Maybe it’s Because I’m a Londoner’ and a hilariously surreal snippet of Offenbach’s famous ‘Can-Can’ tune triggered by “Oh no you can’t… Oh yes I can.”
Cathy Baker leaves us in no doubt that her Dick is “good, pure, and honest.” Her first duet with sweetheart Alice (played gushingly by Cerys Whitfield) is a powerfully delivered ‘A Million Dreams’ from The Greatest Showman. Rosie Parrington as Fairy Bow Bells also gives us a fine version of ‘Make Your Own Kind of Music’. And there’s a rousing chorus version of ‘Honey, Honey’ from Mama Mia!
Every entrance of arch villain King Rat (Colin Whitfield) prompts instant, resounding boos. He’s suitably menacing for a family audience (the audience sing-a-long had two four-year-olds on stage when volunteers were called for). He’s ably assisted by a troupe of five juvenile rats and creepily-expressive co-conspirators Rot (Sharon Wright) and Stench (Richard Greenwood).
Jon Edwards as dame Sarah the Cook belongs to the slapstick school of cuisine and keeps the jolly pace moving with plenty of physical humour. Time and again he sets up Dan Cummings who as her son Idle Jack earns the most sustained laughter of the evening. Charged initially with warming up the audience (we first see Jack carrying a tiny electric heater), Cummings seems instead to be warmed up by the audience. By the time he’s sparring verbally over a platter of ‘Spotted Dick’, stumbling indolently towards trouble after being hypnotised, and gleefully swimming backwards towards a seductive mermaid, it seems like he’s turbo-charged by the fits of laughter.
And finally – since the AmDrams managed to get Brexit in there (courtesy of King Rat, who claims responsibility for the Brexit vote, Donald Trump, AND bank-holiday roadworks) – here’s a fact about the real Dick Whittington that doesn’t make it into the panto: the hugely successful tradesman and public benefactor of the Middle Ages was at one time mayor of both London and Calais.