Dick Whittington at Theatre Royal Stratford East: An epic adventure in search of spiritual fortunes in London – the land of Bubble Tea and bucket hats
‘Tis the night before the general election, and it seems perfectly relevant to watch a panto about a rat king who steals the dreams of children. In a seamless merge between the stories of Dick Whittington and his Cat and The Pied Piper, David Watson (Book and Lyrics) and Robert Hyman (Music and Lyrics) bring you the Christmas panto that shouldn’t be missed! The magical set reminds one of the sweet memories of the pic-n-mix section of Woolworths; in fact sweeties are thrown into the air for the audience to catch – though I will take this moment to remind those of us who aren’t under the age of 16, please don’t take candy from babies by showing off your catching skills. Dick Whittington is a classic Christmas panto with some inescapable current and wonderfully scathing references. Thought you could escape Brexit jokes (“The rats brought us Brexit!”)? Think again. Thought references to Stormzy could only be made by Michael Gove? Absolutely not; in fact, this play might just be the one to reference his lyrics properly.
Young Dick Whittington (Sèverine Howell-Meri) lives with his grandma (Bree Smith) in a place where “dragons roam the earth and magic is in the air” – also known as Romford. More specifically, he lives in place called West-Field (gettit?) where they grow some emoji-looking turnips for a living, and perhaps even as a lifestyle. Desperately wanting to spread his wings and feeling out of place in Essex, Dick wants to go to London. In fact, he belts out in song, “I want to drink bubble tea in London/It’s a bucket hat for me, in London”.
On his travels, Dick bumps into Nathaniel (Harry Jardine) who is cat from Catford, wanting to be a dog; the two misfits soon become friends. We are also acquainted with Nathaniel’s talent in rapping with a rhyming flow quicker than a cat’s reflexes. Finally, Dick reaches Stratford. Here, Lady Lush (Vedi Roy) runs an ice-cream parlour with Alice (Francesca Zoutewelle) who is half rat, half girl. But, there is a big problem in Stratford – rats! The Mayor (Lizzie Winkler), a caricature of a politician, commissions King Rat (Tom Giles) – a character loosely based on the Pied Piper – to rid the city of its rat infestation. Alice, being half rat, is kidnapped by King Rat.
Stratford is soon rid of its rat infestation and so King Rat returns to the Mayor for his payment. Being apparently broke, the Mayor scrambles to offer him a form of payment (Perhaps we could discuss a backstop or some kind of customs union?”). King Rat demands the children of Stratford so that he can harvest their dreams – why or for what is unclear but is a relatively easy plot-hole to forgive considering that Dick Whittington is hardly the most logical story to follow. Dick, having fallen in love with Alice, heads for King Rat’s very scooby-doo-chic lair to rescue her. Alice laments that she wishes Stormzy was here – “he’d Vossi Bop us out of here!”. We never quite find out what happened to all the children, but we’re urged by King Rat to also ignore that plot hole.
The stage design is irrefutably magical and exciting. Deep in the thickets of Waltham Forest, we come across an enormous dragon with bright red lights for eyes and a fittingly thick Welsh accent. It’s a shame that this dragon is only really used for one scene; one can’t help but wonder if it could be used for next year’s Icelandic Eurovision contest entry.
With audience participation, in which one slightly uncomfortable member of the audience was invited to play a small part on stage, this a wonderfully interactive and light-hearted production. As much as this is a classic Christmas panto inviting us to shout “It’s behind you!”, it’s also a reflection on what it is that we’re looking for in our capital city; just like Dick, are people moving to London to also look for their spiritual fortunes in the form of yoga classes and expensive cocktails?
Dick Whittington will be on at Theatre Royal Stratford East from Sat 23 Nov 2019 – Sat 11 Jan 2020