“Aunty Helen, that was the best panto I’ve ever seen.”
These are the words of my niece, Scout. She may only be ten-years-old but, as an enthusiastic theatregoer, she knows what she likes. And if a child loves a theatre production, then the people on stage must be doing something right.
It’s been five years since The Met in Bury hosted a pantomime. But as the venue’s artistic director, David Agnew, told me during the interval, the time felt right to bring it back. Judging by the audience’s reaction on opening night, and my own tears of laughter, he made the right decision.
Dick Whittington isn’t a story I know particularly well but that didn’t matter. All the elements of a successful panto were there: a Dame to rival the best in pantoland, a cat who stole the limelight every time she slunk onto stage, well-choreographed song-and-dance routines, audience (un)willing participation, and bawdy jokes. It was an absolute hoot from start to finish.
In The Met’s small but perfectly formed theatre, The Big Tiny company made the most of the space, even if Robert Styles’ voluminous (and splendid ) Dame costumes threatened to knock fellow actors into the footlights. And those costumes were glorious. My personal favourite involved an enormous pair of knockers which, as with many other elements of the staging, afforded groan-worthy jokes lapped up by the Bury audience. But Styles could have entered stage left in a bin bag and I’d still have been guffawing my heart out. His portrayal of Sarah the Cook is up there with the Dames who tread the boards every Christmas at the Hackney Empire, a panto which has a special place in my heart.
While Dick Whittington is synonymous with that there London, the references to Bury sprinkled through the script were big hits with adults and children alike at The Met (perhaps more next year, though? A riff on Bury black pudding is surely a gift to panto?), and it’s a pleasure to see a true Northerner in the title role. Connor Baldwin only graduated last year but he looked entirely at home as an affable Dick (oo-er), as did another recent graduate, Lauren Steele as Dick’s love interest, Alice Fitzwarren.
With just seven performers in the cast, some were called on to fill multiple roles. In the grand tradition of panto, much was made of this to brilliant comedic effect, in particular by Ian Hayles who took on four characters, excelling in each one. Meanwhile, Naomi Wynter as Fairy Bowbells brought a twinkle to the ensemble, and Queen Rat, played by Nancy Penvose, elicited the requisite boos and hisses whenever she slithered into view.
But the cat, oh the cat. When Leni Murphy bounded onto the stage, it was obvious that her infectious energy would mark her out as a crowd-pleaser. It certainly helped that, as I sat there with my mum, sister and niece, we had six cats waiting for us at our respective homes – anything feline-based is pushing at an open door with us. But I reckon even dog-lovers would have been rooting for Murphy’s cat last night, not least because her inventive use of just one word of permitted dialogue – “miaow” – was glorious. No spoilers here, suffice to say I will never look at Elaine Paige in the same way again.
Writer/director Ben Richards has really pulled it off (missus). Tons of pantos vie for people’s attention at this time of year but I doubt you’ll find one better value for money given that tickets for this frothy and frolicsome show are priced £13-£18.
On the way home, after we’d scraped the ice off the car, my niece declared that Bury Met’s Dick Whittington is “amazing and hilarious”. Aunty Helen agrees.
Photos by Howard Barlow
(I was going to award four stars but was told in no uncertain terms by my niece that five was correct)
Dick Whittington is at The Met in Bury until December 24, 2022. Click here for more information and tickets.