Abbot excels in the hilarious Dick Whittington

Review by Paul Nelson

PANTOMIME is a very special field and is becoming increasingly rarefied. With young audiences no longer enjoying the element of surprise, small children, electronically wise beyond their years with computer games galore, and television magic being an everyday mundanity, the bottom is being knocked out of the genre.

Modern parents demand audience reaction before the option has been offered from the stage. 'He's behind you!', 'Oh, yes he did!', hissing and cheering, are parent-led these days. The excitement of theatre is being strangled by the smugness of deja vu emanating from the grown-ups.

This does not appear to happen with what must now be called the elderly generation.

Grandparents are infinitely more suited to be an appreciative audience and to enjoy with their little charges the thrill of the theatre, without spoiling it by being blasé and telegraphing what should take the very juvenile members of the audience by surprise.

It is also not unknown for the performers to join in this destruction of make-believe, little realising or possibly caring that they are cutting their own throats. Unless they respect it, this particular avenue of employment for them will fold.

Having started this review in such a gloomy manner, it is with great joy and relief to be able to shout the praises of Wimbledon Theatre's annual Christmas-time event.

Their pantos are always presented with an exceptionally high standard, mainly avoiding the aforementioned pitfalls, and this year's offering, Dick Whittington, has a pillar of strength in its star, Russ Abbot. As Idle Jack he opens up the stage for small people and is at all times engaging with no hint of playing to the adults in the audience, without, and quite a feat this, not actually forgetting them. The result is they fall under his spell in much the same way as their children.

His first entrance, after the initial introductory patter, sets the evening alight as he is accosted by a tiny child in a hard hat claiming to be Bob The Builder. The stage is then invaded by more children and the resulting musical number is a show-stopper.

We are once again in Pantoland where we know everything will be for the best, though the path to happiness and true love we equally know will not be smooth.

Mr Abbot is abetted by, among others, Russ Kane, new to me but very familiarly known to the audience. He has a charm that 'feeds' seem to lack these days and it is a shame he doesn't have a solo number. He manages to ride the improbable plot that a once merchant in the City should now be captain of his own trading ship with ease, but that is not the only variation in the story.

The rat-ridden sultanate of Morocco is skated over, and there is a lack of a real fear of arrest in Dick being accused of theft (surely a serious matter for the gallows in those days). Even Sarah the Cook is deprived of the messy sloshings about in the kitchen, which used to be a highlight of this pantomime but admittedly which presented terrible stage problems in changing to the following scene.

The show also boasts a beautiful and charming heroine in Luisa Cusano, and an agile Cat in Adam Ellis.

As is usual the sets and costumes are up to standard and the dancers gamely attack their numbers even though they are, along with everyone other than Russ Abbot, absolutely upstaged by the Babette Langford Young Set, those tiny talents that steal this show year after year.

Dick Whittington is a welcome addition to a season that is becoming increasingly foreign to its original appeals and if you can get in, there is a shorter run this year, you should not miss it. Along with the rest of the audience I laughed much more than in previous years, a fact for which I must fairly and squarely lay the blame at the feet of Russ Abbot.

Dick Whittington by Tudor Davies, Directed by John Bishop, Choreographed by Di Cooke, Musical Director Steve Clark, Lighting Designer Adrian Barnes, WITH: Russ Abbot (Idle Jack), Russ Kane (Captain Fitzwarren), Bobby Bennett (Sarah the Cook), Judy Buxton (Spirit of the Bells), Sally Taylor (Dick Whittington), Adam Dodd (King Rat), Luisa Cusano (Alice Fitzwarren), Adam Ellis (Tommy the Cat), The Young Set, and Eva Blanco, Susan Hallam-Wright, Davinda Heyre, Matthew Hudson, Melissa Marshall, Eugene McCoy, Susan Shaw, Daniel Stutz (Citizens). Produced by Nick Thomas and Jon Conway for QDOS Entertainment plc and presented at Wimbledon Theatre, The Broadway, Wimbledon, London SW19 (until January 19). Tickets 020 8540 0362

RELATED LINKS: Click here for the Wimbledon Theatre website...