If, like us, you’re a regular at the York Theatre Royal pantomime, you’ll be used to knowing what you’re in for even before the name of the show’s been announced. Year in, year out, some things are guaranteed: outrageous frocks, good gags, local gags and gags for mums and dads, Harry Gration, big musical numbers, the baddest baddie of them all, off-script Berwick banter and Wagon Wheels, all tied up in a baffling plot.
I can’t be the only one who had a slight sense of panic when York Theatre Royal announced that the pantomime would be moving to the National Railway Museum’s purpose-built Signal Box Theatre this year because of overrunning refurbishment work. Would it really be the same if we weren’t sitting in those red velvet seats eating too many Maltesers? And, more importantly, how would the show work in the Signal Box set-up (the audience is divided into two by a railway track running along the centre). In short, I was worried that our annual Christmas theatre experience – one that’s been central to our family for a couple of decades now – just wouldn’t be the same at the National Railway Museum. It turns out I was right; it’s not the same. It’s better.
Dick Whittington (and his Meerkat) is the funniest, freshest and most enjoyable York Theatre Royal pantomime I can remember. From the Babbies and Bairns welcome song to Berwick’s last wave through the final curtain, the plot romps along accompanied by fantastic music, impressive choreography, stunning costumes and sets and genuinely funny jokes. The writing is razor-sharp and the story even makes sense. Sort of.
It’s fair to say it’s not quite the Dick Whittington that you read at school: there are cave-dwellers and rats, sharks and seals, trains and boats and, of course, a meerkat (hats off to AJ Powell for his star turn as the magnificent meerkat). David Leonard is on excellent baddie form while the Berwick Kaler and Martin Barrass duo is more dynamic than ever. As always, Suzy Cooper sparkles even when the script calls on her to snarl.
We usually sit at the back of the stalls – you always need an exit strategy with young kids – so it was incredible to see the cast so close up. The design of The Signal Box means that even on the back row you’re probably closer to the action than usual, making the whole experience really engaging and immersive. Of course it means that making a hasty exit with a child could be a bit hair-raising – you’d have to hope Berwick was looking in the other direction – but the chances are your kids would be so enthralled by the whole thing that they’d be too distracted to realise they need the loo. On another practical note, the theatre is in a very fancy temporary construction – it seems unkind to call it a tent – and it’s noticeably colder in December than it was during the summer run of The Railway Children. But that’s okay – we’re northern. We just ate our interval ice cream standing next to a heater.
Most of the elements of the York Theatre Royal pantomime that we know and love are there, from Harry Gration’s star turn to the song sheet (with a twist) and a bucket-load or two of Wagon Wheels. Every year I wonder what people from other cities would make of it, ‘this old pile of rubbish’ as Berwick called it. The mind boggles. But it’s our old pile of rubbish and we love it, this year as much as any other. More so actually.
If the Theatre Royal panto is usually on your festive calendar but the change of venue’s made you think twice, we’d urge you to think again. It’s faster, funnier, sillier and more entertaining than ever. And if you’ve been wondering about taking your family along but haven’t got round to it before, this is the year to do it. It’s a one-of-a-kind show in a once-in-a-lifetime venue. Don’t miss it.
Dick Whittington (and his meerkat) runs until Sunday 24th January at The Signal Box Theatre at the National Railway Museum. You can book online through the York Theatre Royal Box Office.
© Little Vikings 2015