I’m not going to lie to you. I didn’t have great expectations for this pantomime. I mean, where is Grays anyway? A mate on social media cruelly suggested that it only exists so that people from Gravesend can feel superior to somewhere. Turns out its part of Thurrock, which is a key marginal in the election I’m trying to ignore as I write this on polling day. Recently it gained notoriety for being the place where the bodies of 39 Vietnamese people were discovered in a refrigerated lorry which had arrived from Zeebrugge – believed to be the victims of human trafficking. As the train swings around from Lakeside shopping centre you can see the cranes of the old docks, the windswept wastelands and the complex of wharfs, which stretches between the railway line and the Thames a few hundred yards away. On the other side there’s a pedestrianized shopping street which leads you past the glorious but now defunct State Cinema (soon – hopefully – to be converted to a Wetherspoons) up to the Thameside Theatre. We’d been googling possible pubs to pop into before the show, but the results weren’t promising – a choice between the ‘old fuckers’ pub, and the ‘racist’ pub. A member of our party who had arrived earlier texted to say the place was a ‘hole’ and she was hanging around in the foyer of the theatre waiting for the bar to open.
All of this seems a very long way away from the sun drenched villa on Love Island where Wes Nelson first shot to fame as the snake who mugged off fragile air hostess Laura in favour of the girl he’d been grafting behind her back. Where Wes goes some of my girlfriends are sure to follow, so when it was announced he’d be starring in Dick Whittington at the Thameside Theatre it was clearly an opportunity for a Christmas get together not to be missed. I’ve written before about how important television is to panto, and not just in terms of casting. Wes isn’t the only Love Island star to give us his Dick. Curtis [‘I think you’re a lovely young lady’] Pritchard from this year’s series is also starring in the role for Qdos in the Swan Theatre, Wycombe. Qdos is of course a massive panto company, putting on over 35 shows a year and attracting major TV stars from across the gamut of programming – Louis Spence (Aberdeen), Lesley Joseph (Birmingham), Shane Richie (Bristol), Gok Wan (Cardiff) Shirley Ballas (Darlington), Doon Mackichan (Glasgow), Craig Revel Horwood (Manchester), Anita Dobson (Northampton), Jo Brand (Richmond) and Brendan Cole (Woking) are only some of the television stars appearing in their productions around the country this year. The Thameside show is produced by the more modest Polka Dot Pantomimes, also a producer of multiple pantos but on a much smaller scale. They are producing seven pantomimes this year, and Wes seems to be their first foray into celebrity casting. The Thameside is typical of the venues that Polka Dot work with – the theatre is basically an auditorium within a local authority complex which also holds the library and the registry office – hence my friend’s ambivalence as she waited for the bar to open surrounded by leaflets about council tax and parking restrictions. The auditorium is quite small – a single rake going down to a modest stage. No orchestra pit or fly tower. There were some flashing novelties on sale in the foyer, but no programme – I was directed to some notices pinned to the wall for details of the cast and creative team.
Well, so much for low expectations. As it turned out this was one of the best pantos we went to this year. It was perfectly tailored to the modest venue, and brilliantly executed by a clearly highly experienced team of performers. Wes might have been the headliner, but it was clear enough that the Dame (Luke Coldham) and King Rat (Richard Burman) were a well established team, returning to Grays having established a rapport with the town over several seasons. These two in particular held the show together, but I was also a fan of Dominic McChesney as Alderman Fitzwarren and John Oakes taking the clown role as Idle Jack.
Perhaps one of the reasons why I enjoyed the show so much was that it was absolutely straightforward and honest in the ways that it used the conventions of pantomime as they should be used. Those conventions exist for good reason of course. There is no more efficient way of establishing the theme of the battle between good and evil than to have the good fairy appear, introduce the backstory and then be interrupted by the baddie. Like the introduction to a good undergraduate essay, this sequence wastes no time in laying the key conflicts and characters before us. ‘This is the story of Dick Whittington…’ declares Fairy Bow Bells (Stacy Bland), wafting the sulphur of her entrance flash away and explaining that the hero has walked from Grays to London to seek his fortune, but… ‘the journey is not nice/ and he hasn’t felt this tired/ since Dancing on Ice’. King Rat’s interruption is similarly concise and clear so that before Dick even appears on the stage we understand the forces ranged for and against him. Pantomimes are generally such a rag bag of songs, comic routines, star turns, special effects and transformations that without the deus ex machina interventions of the fairy and the baddie they’d fall apart completely. Before they appear again, we’ll have had the market scene, the introduction of at least three main characters each making their contracts with the audience, an opening stand up routine from the Dame, a comic sequence with the Dame and the Alderman punning on different species of fish and three full production numbers. Their reappearance may be brief, but it’s a pithy punctuation mark, which resets the panto onto the rails of the narrative. ‘I’m going to destroy London town’ says King Rat, ‘By the time I’ve finished with it, it’ll look worse than Basildon!’ ‘Oh I do wish you’d just go away,’ responds the fairy, ‘you’re about as popular as Theresa May!’ The fairy’s appearance is always a good sign that the plot will get a hefty nudge forward, either by introducing Dick to his pussy, enchanting everyone so that they can breathe underwater, or simply casting a spell on King Rat to make him good and effectively end the show. One often wishes she’s rock up in the cinema more often. And think what an improvement she’d make to Hedda Gabler.
To be fair, Dick Whittington is pretty tightly plotted anyway, at least in the first half, and this production was exemplary in keeping it on track. In true Douglas Byng style, the opening fight between the Fairy Bow Bells and King Rat gave way to the market scene with all the local kids dancing around and Wes singing ‘Hey Hey it’s another day’ from Smallfoot. Nobody’s going to say that Wes is a great actor but he can carry the tune pretty well, and he radiates a sort of game I’ll-give-it-a-go-ness which is very endearing. He’s tiny. That famed sixpack (gratuitously on display in the second half of this show) isn’t the result of him being all huge and all butch. It’s a result of him being really skinny. When the people in the market ignore him as he approaches them to ask directions, he really does seem vulnerable and lost in the big city. ‘People in London don’t seem very friendly’ he muses, and the pantomime connects briefly but significantly with the reality of immigrant experience in this election month.
The balance between the plotting and the set pieces is actually very carefully worked out here, so that neither element dominates. The rag bag of familiar routines is of course the real reason that panto is fun, while the plotting provides the emotional charge. Here the routines are brilliantly performed, and pitched with a great deal of consideration and thought clearly having gone into what will work in a theatre of this size and type, and how they will be balanced against the plotting. Here I’m going break pantomime’s cardinal rule of generosity and compare this show with Qdos’s Aladdin at Bromley, which we saw a few days later. Ostensibly the Bromley show had so much more going for it. It starred panto ‘legend’ Christopher Biggins as Widow Twankey, and had all the finance and creative resources of a massive company behind it. The clown was Rikki Jay who I have fond memories of in Norwich about twenty years ago, although he’s knocking on a bit for the role today and some of his material dates from those years too (one gag punned on ‘Orange’ phones which have been defunct since before most of the kids in the audience were born). He was the best thing in it though, working hard to make the comic routines come off. Biggins more or less walked through his part. He’s been Widow Twankey in different locations for the last four seasons, and my notes on the Richmond outing in 2016 (also with Rikki Jay) demonstrate that the script has also remained almost totally unchanged since then, except that a ventriloquist has been shoe-horned into a second comic role which basically involves him doing his cabaret act. Lazy. At Richmond the spectacular flying carpet effect, and the strong comic support of Issy Van Randwyck and Count Arthur Strong ensured a magical night of entertainment, but three years later the Bromley incarnation just looked and felt like a tired ‘C’ company who’d lost interest. It was all the more disappointing because my experience of Qdos pantos more generally (and I’ve seen several productions repeatedly), is that they strive to keep the shows fresh and sharp each year, even when repeating material. Here the flying carpet didn’t even emerge from the front gauze and Biggins managed to fluff one of the jokes so badly that he and the clown had no option but to retire from the stage in confusion. Will Gompertz may think that mistimed musical cues and misfired pyrotechnics don’t matter in pantomime, but Will Gompertz doubtless didn’t pay £39 for his ticket. Personally I think the mums ‘spluttering into their plastic cups of prosecco’ deserve something better. Yes, the raison d’etre of pantomime is dad jokes and recycled routines. But in order to make it work, you still have to… work.
The Dame and the clown worked pretty hard at Grays. The slosh scene was beautifully conceived – not one I’ve seen before – and perfectly executed. If you don’t have an experienced slapstick comic on the team, the slosh scene is surely pretty daunting. This show had a neat solution to that problem, making ‘dough balls’ which they distributed to the audience before deciding they were ‘too dry’ and needed spraying with water, with brilliant pandemonium the result. In contrast to the pathetic flying carpet at Bromley, the ‘Turn again Whittington’ scene was a triumph. I’ve said before that it’s my favourite thing in all panto, and this had all the emotional pulls in place. The Fairy discovering Dick asleep in front of the Hampstead set cast her spell while singing ‘Wonderful Life’ which segued into the song of the bells. The stage went dark and came up again with just Dick visible at the join of the front curtains taking up the main number as he flew wide over the front row of the audience, with just the shadow of the stage hands hauling on the counter-weight visible in the crack of the curtains. Wes can Instagram all the beach shots he likes, this was the moment when I felt envious of his reality star lifestyle.
The shipwreck scene was similarly brilliant in its simplicity and its execution, both the prelude with the cast running from one side of the stage to another to suggest the listing ship, and the pay off which was a filmed insert of the Dame underwater being chased by a shark with plenty of opportunity for the ‘it’s behind you’ exchange.
And where did they all rock up? Love Island of course! ‘I’ve got a text!’ called Wes… By the time they had vanquished a big hairy gorilla suspected of being Boris Johnson, and the Good Fairy had appeared to magic King Rat into a goody, we were replete. ‘You made a deal/ you shook his hand’ the Good Fairy warned King Rat, ‘and we follow the rules/ in panto land.’ This panto completely followed the rules, and was a joyous delight as a result.