Oh, yes they did: Dick Whittington and his cat, Ben Crocker

The Fisher Theatre has developed an enviable reputation over the last few years for putting on an excellent pantomime at Christmas, and I’ve seen tired London theatregoers light up when describing brilliance found in Bungay, but until now all that has been the work of visiting professional theatre companies. This year, building on the strength of their original dramatic productions like The Curse of the Black Death, the Fisher Theatre has at last created their first in-house pantomime: and their confident, dramatically compelling result does not feel anything like a first attempt. Using a talented professional cast with strong East Anglian connections, and incorporating some rising stars from the Fisher Youth Theatre Group, Dick Whittington and his cat is a Motown-fuelled, pop-studded sensation of energy and enthusiasm in the best tradition of panto. We have flamboyant costumes for everyone, especially our outrageous Dame; colourful cartoon-inspired sets by Scenic Projects which simply frame the busy action; plenty of music and singing all through the night; and lashings of audience interaction, with oohs, aahs, hisses and boos, sweets thrown into the crowd, audience singing competitions, and children up on stage. In short: this ticks every classic panto box. But it doesn’t stop there, as director Darren France adds interest with active, silent clowning during musical numbers, and successful metatheatrical moments which work comically: Simon Morgan’s quick character changes across three key male roles become progressively more difficult to achieve (and ever more hilarious to watch) as the night goes on.

Ben Crocker’s witty and wide-ranging script takes Dick Whittington from the streets and shops of London in the first half to the high seas in the second, keenly pursued by the fearsome King Rat, and enthusiastically pursuing his own true love Alice, all conveyed with enough rhyming couplets to pacify Linda Snell (plus a few smuggled innuendoes for grownups). Crocker’s words have been given a quick local polish here and there: the rats are “hell bent on global domination: from Halesworth to Sudbury”, and many of the pop songs’ lyrics get cleverly updated with a few East Anglian details (“Bungay” turns out to have rich rhyming potential). The music, directed by Laila France, embraces hits from the Sixties to the present day, letting the cast sing and dance in a range of styles and genres – and guaranteeing that, whatever your age, there’s no excuse not to sing along, because somewhere between Motown, the Beatles, Take That and Lady Gaga, you’re bound to know it.

We have a crystal clear, poised and sassy Dick Whittington from Hayley Evenett, who easily wins our hearts and commands our loyalty with her charming, appealing and thigh-slapping hero. Laila France, mainly miaowing as a lithe and lifelike Tom Cat, is a brilliant sidekick who turns out to have a truly beautiful soprano voice (as well as a destiny-shaping killer instinct where rats are concerned). Simon Morgan takes on a trio of roles with aplomb: the successful and enterprising merchant Alderman Fitzwarren, his rugged sea-dog brother Captain Horatio Fitzwarren and the fey, childish Emperor of Morocco, a tantrum-prone tyrant who can’t say his ‘r’s. A gifted classical actor, Morgan makes a nice transition to panto, exuding energy throughout, throwing tasteful irony into his comic moments, and singing with panache. Steve Peck is delightfully dastardly as King Rat, our chief villain, who arrives to the contemporary sound of grime but breaks into Shakespeare when deeply moved, gloriously evil and revelling in every boo that comes his way, while members of the Fisher Youth Theatre Group play spirited, but impoverished townsfolk, wonderfully malevolent rats, and one very musical mouse. Fisher Youth Theatre Group graduate Ellie Foulger is beautifully confident and lyrically clear as Fairy Bowbells, the cockney sprite who sends Tom Cat to help Dick, and wafts the action in the right direction with a quick spell here and there: Foulger’s absolute self-possession on stage, lovely singing and natural stage presence speak volumes for FYTG training. A masterly, relaxed pantomime dame from Peter Sowerbutts as the world-weary, sarcastic Sarah the Cook is a piece of luxury casting; Sowerbutts’ occasional ad libs are a treat in themselves in an unrepentantly fabulous, humourously gender-bending performance. Beth Holloway is sweet and believable as Alice Fitzwarren, Dick’s ingenue love interest. As Alice’s dim and unlucky admirer Jack, Dominic Sands exhibits a distinct talent for singing and dance in his often assured, effective portrayal of an easily-led traitor.

The pace of the piece does take its toll, and the second half isn’t all quite as slick as the first. The ending falls suddenly across the action, Crocker not having worked his finale in with as much care as his zany plot twists; but the energy lifts for a rousing final farewell song from the cast, and the sheer spirit of this panto, ultimately, carries all before it.

Rating: Four

At The Fisher Theatre, Bungay until 2nd January 2018: book tickets here

Produced in association with Upshoot Theatre Company

Raising awareness for Rose Cottage Cat Rescue (cat bed in theatre foyer for donations of cat food and other items) 

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