Lawrence Hodgson-Mullings

Dick Whittington

25/12/20

National Theatre Live

It’s Christmas Day, but it doesn’t really feel like it. We’ve done our best, but our family is scattered across three of the United Kingdom’s four nations, and various Covid-restrictions and shielding-needs make visiting impossible. So, for the first time in my life, I’m not sharing the festivities with my mum or dad or brother today, and we’re not seeing Philip’s daughter either. Not in person anyway. But we’re all determined to make the best of it, so we assemble our fancy breakfasts and log in to Zoom for a present exchange. And we know we’re lucky: none of us is alone, and we all have access to technology. It’ll do. It’ll have to.

We’ve also got a panto lined up, because what’s Christmas without one? Philip and I have attended the always-fabulous King’s Theatre’s offerings in Edinburgh since we moved here, but pantos have loomed large for me ever since I was a little girl. Not only did we go to see them, I was often in them as well, as a member of the Rhyl Children’s Little Theatre company. “Look out! Here comes the Baron!” See, I still remember my first ever line, spoken from the depths of the chorus.

The National Theatre’s 2020 offering, originally commissioned by the Lyric Hammersmith, is available for free on YouTube until midnight on 27th December (although they are asking for donations, which seems fair enough). We’re all primed and ready in our respective homes: 7.30pm for curtain up, and a group chat arranged for the interval.

It takes me about twenty minutes to warm to the show, if I’m honest, probably because panto is usually such an immersive experience, one where inhibitions are discarded, and our love of the silly and outrageous can be indulged. Shouting and waving at the iMac from the sofa just doesn’t quite cut it.

But, once I’ve settled in and accepted this for what it is, I really start to enjoy it. Lawrence Hodgson-Mullings is the eponymous Dick; he’s come from Leeds to London because he’s heard it’s brilliant there. But outgoing Mayor Pigeon (Laura Checkley) is presiding over a crumbling city, and her likely successor, Queen Rat (Amy Booth-Steel) wants to drag it even further down. But the real spirit of London, the time-bending Bow Belles (Melanie La Barrie) thinks Dick might be exactly what the city needs. She watches as the irrepressibly optimistic young man befriends the high-top-obsessed Tom Cat (Cleve September), and then finds lodgings with cafĂ©-owner/Dame Sarah (Dickie Beau) and her daughter, Alice (Georgina Onuorah), before telling him her plan: Dick should stand against Queen Rat to become London’s mayor!

There’s ingenuity a-plenty here, as you’d expect from a team like this. The script (by Jude Christian and Cariad Lloyd) sizzles along, maintaining a delightful balance between the traditional and the topical, the shambolic and the spectacular. This is theatre-in-the-round, which is unusual for a pantomime, but works well, the clock-face of the stage underscoring the idea of time that’s so integral to the piece. It’s theatre-in-the-pandemic too, and director Ned Bennett embraces rather than conceals limitations this imposes, with some delightful comic touches that somehow make it all okay. The stand-out for me is the socially-distanced pantomime horse, which has a two-metre gap between its shoulders and its bum.

Hodgson-Mullings is really winsome, a convincing beacon of hope in dark times. And Booth-Steel is the perfect villain, clearly relishing the role. We find ourselves mimicking her strange accent during our interval catch-up. Dickie Beau’s Dame (fabulously costumed by Georgia Lowe) is a treat too, all sparkling goodwill and vivacious wit.

The National Theatre is hoping to open up for socially-distanced in-person shows again as soon as is safely possible, and I really hope they can. The sudden ‘new-variant-extra-measures’ lockdown, although of course necessary, must have left them reeling: so much time, money and talent has been invested here, and to know this joyous performance has been punctured in this way is heartbreaking even from this distance. As soon as things change, do try to see this. It really deserves an audience.

4.1 stars

Susan Singfield