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 Connecting professional and amateur theatre in Newbury, West Berkshire and beyond

Corn Exchange - Dick Whittington

1st to 31st December 2006.

From the Newbury Weekly News.

Filling the cook's size nines

Lame dame no laughing matter for 'understudy' director Cal McCrystal

Dick Whittington, at The Corn Exchange, Newbury, until Sunday, December 31

It's not an easy job being a pantomime director. It's probably hard enough persuading young actors, fresh out of drama school, that playing the back-end of a cow really is the first step on the road to success (it was for Mathew Baynton, who plays Dick: two years ago that was the role he took in Jack and the Beanstalk at The Corn Exchange). But worse, if one of your actors is suddenly indisposed, you're likely to be the only other person in the theatre that knows all the lines.

This is the position that Dick Whittington's director Cal McCrystal found himself in temporarily at the weekend, filling the tent-like dresses of panto dame Sarah the Cook after actor Vincent Osborne suffered an on-stage ankle injury during the final dress rehearsal and had to pull out of the entire run. He rose to the occasion Cal-orifically, even if some of the 'fat lady' jokes were lost, like McCrystal's relatively slender frame inside Sarah's billowing costumes.

Unfortunate as it was, such a last-minute mishap seemed to give the show an anything-goes feel, with the cast appearing more relaxed than they often would so early in a run. Organised anarchy reigned; and while it's hard to tell with pantos how many of the ad-libs are scripted, an air of "what more can possibly go wrong?", added a caution-to-the-wind approach, which only added to the fun.

As with last year's Cinderella, the zippy script by David Benson whipped along at a pace-and-a-half, with no downtime at all, as the action whizzed from Old London Town, hopped on board a ship bound for the exotic Orient (or somewhere near it) and sailed back again in the time it took to say "Lord Mayor of London". All the "he's behind you" and "oh, no it isn't" were present and correct in the post-ironic way that works best with today's audiences, as were the modern cultural references to the likes of Pirates of the Caribbean and "Am I bovvered?".

Barb Jungr again provided a set of snappy songs with witty lyrics (Dick and love interest Alice sang about how 'nice' they thought each other was, while Tommy the cat retched in the background as if he'd swallowed a furball), although the radio mics could have done with being turned up a touch.

Last year's ugly sister Rose Petal, Baynton stepped out of the mini skirt and into breeches to play Richard, aka Dick, as a gauche young man who owed all his eventual success to his wisecracking cat (Mark Conway), getting away with it because he was the only person who could understand what Tommy was saying. Dippy Alice (Kate Rawnson) made a refreshing change from the usually glamourous leading lady role, while dad Alderman Fitzwarren (Graham Howes) had an uncanny resemblance to Keith Allen (the Sheriff of Nottingham in the BBC's Robin Hood), which came in useful when he had to take on his dual role as the Sultan of Morocco.

This year, Newbury pantomime favourite Richard Thomson took on the role of sidekick Idle Jack. It feels like Cambridge graduate Thomson has been in every panto at The Corn Exchange since 1867, but apparently it's only been since 2004. Even so, he's an accomplished comedian whose presence would be sorely missed.

King Rat (Philip Elvy) reminded me of another BBC character - The Mighty Boosh's Cockney Hitcher, which makes sense, as McCrystal just happens to have directed two of The Boosh's live shows. The Marilyn Manson-like King Rat and his swaggering punk henchmen (played confidently by the Young Company) were a fearsome bunch, but not too scary for delicate little ones.

Dick Whittington is exactly what a pantomime should be: fun, wacky, a little bit naughty, and more than benefiting from the lack of Z-list celebrity stars in its cast. It should be made law that Hiss & Boo produce every panto in the country. I urge everyone in West Berkshire to see it before the end of the run - just remember, the lead character's name is Richard, so whatever you do, don't call him Dick.