Laughing along with our favourite pantomime dame at Shrewsbury’s Theatre Severn has become as much of a Christmas tradition as carols in the square for our family.
And it’s obviously not just us. When Dame Dolly, played by Brad Fitt, takes to the stage in this year’s production of Dick Whittington, the audience bursts into spontaneous applause.
“My name’s Dame Dolly, at least it is this year,” she quips.
It is the fifth year that Brad Fitt has taken to the Shrewsbury stage. It’s not as many times as BBC Radio Shropshire’s Eric Smith, who makes his 14th appearance this year, but it’s clear that Fitt’s dame is what Shrewsbury panto is all about.
Brad, who also directs the show, engages the audience with off-the-cuff gags, delivered in a Eddie Izzard-esque style. He ad libs jokes about cast, scenery and props, making the rest of the cast laugh with lines that seem spontaneous even if they’re not.
In truth, Dame Dolly steals the show; but that’s not to say the rest of the cast aren’t an incredibly talented bunch in their own right.
Vikki Stone’s Fairy Bowbells makes a charming but down-to-earth West Midlands fairy in Doc Marten boots. The accomplished comedienne also tinkles the ivories Victoria Wood-style in an original and quirky number that makes a change from the usual pantomime ballads.
Maureen the Cat (billed as Tommy but whose new name was apparently chosen by an audience member) raised a laugh every time someone forgot her name and by miaowing and deftly acting out her lines charades-style, demonstrating both grace and comic timing.
Our hero Dick was played by Josh James, who once represented the UK at the 2010 Eurovision Contest with a song called That Sounds Good to Me (no, I don’t remember it either). His Eurovision song gleaned just 10 points, putting it in 25th position. Thankfully, he was hitting all the right notes with the Shrewsbury audience and was my eight-year-old daughter’s favourite cast member. Cheery and likeable with a tuneful singing voice, he made a delightful, adventurous yet romantic hero that all were rooting for.
There was a lovely chemistry between him and beautiful heroine Alice, played by established theatre actress Jemma Carlisle, which was never allowed to get sickly, thanks mainly to Dame Dolly’s constant interruptions (and occasional gagging).
King Rat – a rejected wannabe superstar turned evil – was suitably mean. Stifling what was clearly a killer musical theatre voice, he provided plenty of opportunity for booing.
Ben Thornton’s Captain Crabstick was a loveable sidekick, whose highlight was a superb kitchen galley scene, where he and Dame Dolly attempted to cook during a storm. As the ship rocked dangerously back and forth the pair slid chaotically from left to right in an hilarious scene which was slapstick perfection. How on earth the pair of them have the energy to perform this each night without ending up in A&E is beyond me.
Based around a sweetshop, on board ship, in Morocco and then the sewers, the Dick Whittington story seemed to lose its way in places. But that’s the beauty of panto, no-one takes the plot too seriously when you’re laughing, shouting and singing along.
Days later, and we’re still talking about Dame Dolly’s bikini and trying to mimic her flawless behind-the-counter descent down pretend stairs, then elevator, then lift – a simple but flawlessly rehearsed routine that was genius.
Dick Whittington may have found London’s streets lacking in gold but the Theatre Severn stage was host to a glittering performance which really was the cat’s whiskers.
Review by Eluned Watson
Shropshire Events Guide
As it’s Dick Whittington this year…allow me to let the cat out of the bag. Radio Shropshire’s Eric Smith can sing. He can even dance a little. Hard to believe, I know…but he can move …like Sammy Davis (Senior) … and hold a note … longer than Bill Withers. I was most impressed. And the pivotal role of Alderman Fitzwarren gives him more dramatic scope than previous years as a kindly, sensitive father, and a just, apologetic employer.
And it’s the cat that stole the show for me. In an Andrew Lloyd Webber costume and feline Tina Turner hair, the former chorus girl Lucy Parry really shines under her new spotlight. There’s barely a spare moment in this panto but … just keep your eye on her! She’s a real bundle of joy. She moves brilliantly … always on the go … with a constant Cheshire Grin on her happy-go-lucky face. ‘Skin Parts’ are rarely fun to play on stage…but Lucy gives it her all and is consequently the best I’ve ever seen.
Strangely, the cat seemed to acquire the name Maureen on Press Night. Even though she’s called Tommy in the programme, the audience was invited to suggest a name for her. And apparently we came up with Maureen. This calls for a little investigative reporting. Does the audience really christen her something new every night…or is she always called Maureen? I think we should be told.
This is pretty much a perfect panto. It’s innovative and hilarious.
It’s very present day and yet…as always at Shrewsbury…the company is hugely respectful of Britain’s unique pantomime heritage.
Dame Brad Pitt is on wonderful form and conjures up all sorts of classic panto routines – but always with a twist.
This year the set pieces include his precision delivery of the ‘seeming to go down stairs behind the shop counter’ routine. But then he adds an escalator to his mime repertoire, and finally an elevator…including a perfectly timed pause, waiting for the lift to start going down. People around me were asking, “how it does it”? And the answer must surely be ‘practice, brilliance and bionic knees’.
At the other end of the scale, he and Captain Crabstick (loveably played by Ben Thornton) are brave and barmy on board a rocking and rolling Good Ship Lollypop … as they are pitched back and forth across a slippery stage with buckets of well-directed foam. It’s all helpless belly laugh stuff …and it probably hurts the audience more that in hurts them.
And watch out for the Dame’s fabulously funny bathing attire. No photos have been released and I’m sworn to secrecy on the details … but it is simply hilarious – and, Brad tells me, very hot; both to wear and to watch.
And as ever he loves taking the Mick out of the scenery… threatening to attack an obviously plywood security safe with a woodpecker. And his most outrageous costumes make Camilla Batmanghelidjh look shabby.
I simply can’t fault the cast. Jemma Carlisle and Josh James are suitably shy as the young romantics. Vicky Stone is a great, bouncy, bovver boot Fairy Bow Bells….a bit of a cross between Henry Cooper and Victoria Wood. And she was completely un-phased when the end of her wand fell off in the first few minutes.
And there was plenty of West End musical satire from Darren Tough…as the King Rat who dreams of landing a lead part in ‘Cats’.
Add to that some hugely energetic hoofing from the classy chorus and you get what must be one of the best pantos in the country. It only opened on Wednesday. Already 82% of the tickets are sold. So you know what to do.
My favourite joke is from the Dame. “There’s been terrible accident at the end of the M54”. “That’s not an accident. That’s Wolverhampton”.
Review by Chris Eldon Lee
Christmas means pantomime season and this year’s offering is Dick Whittington, which comes to Theatre Severn for the first time, having last been performed in Shrewsbury twenty years ago. From the moment Vikki Stone’s Fairy Bowbells opens the show, bursting onto the stage in a puff of smoke, the tone is set for a night of fun, energetic, and magical entertainment. Returning to Theatre Severn for a fifth consecutive year, Brad Fitt is hilarious as ever as Dame Dolly, and never fails to reduce the audience to hysterics, whether with slapstick, puns, improvised lines, or local jokes. A special mention must also go to the dame’s numerous costume changes which were a feast for the eyes, with one in particular drawing screams of laughter from the crowds. Josh James and Jemma Carlisle enthusiastically take on the roles of Dick Whittington and Alice Fitzwarren, whilst Shrewsbury panto regular, Eric Smith of BBC Radio Shropshire, makes an appearance as the latter’s father, Alderman Fitzwarren. Lucy Parry gives a spritely, scene-stealing turn as Dick Whittington’s cat companion; officially credited as Tommy but apparently named Maureen on press night, which proved to be a source of amusement. Darren Tough is also great as King Rat; the sneering, nefarious baddie with ambitions of stardom, that the audience loves to hate. Highlights included a slapstick sequence featuring Dame Dolly and Captain Crabstick (Ben Thornton, in a bright, cheery performance) on a rocking ship, which only grew funnier the longer it continued, and another scene in which they both speedily reel off continuous confectionary puns. Comedy drawn from one-liners and ad-libbing also proved to be just as effective in making the audience roar with laughter. In terms of music, the production boasts a variety of numbers which are sure to please theatregoers of all ages, from iconic showtunes to interpretations of some of the year’s most popular chart hits. The show is a colourful, uproarious, slickly produced treat and it was clear to see both the cast and audience were enjoying every minute. Simply put, Dick Whittington is not to be missed.
Review by: Jenna Feasey
In theatreland, the nearness of Christmas means just one thing – panto time. And at Theatre Severn in Shrewsbury, that’s a cause for celebration and no little craziness.
Shrewsbury’s panto is the most successful in Shropshire – this year alone an estimated 28,000 people will flood into the riverside theatre to enjoy pastiche and tomfoolery from a tried and tested ensemble led by the inimitable Brad Fitt.
And mighty good tomfoolery it is, too. This year’s show – Dick Whittington – begins before the curtain goes up as a troupe of dancers fill the front seats with an early-doors routine that gets the crowd warmed up. God help those members of the audience who don’t take their seats in time – they may well find themselves involved in an impromptu sing-and-dance. And from there, it’s two hours of non-stop hilarity.
The show is more than the sum of its parts, though panto dame Brad Fitt is the first among equals. At times, he didn’t so much steal the limelight as tie a big lasso around it and fly it to the moon. Fitt is hilarious. With more costume changes than Diana Ross and a delivery that’s at times even-more-droll than Jack Dee, he’s non-stop funny.
But though the script’s pretty good, if not a little tame for the benefit of da kidz, the finest moments are when the cast go off piste and do their own thing. Fitt appeared to do so on one occasion when he pushed a wheelbarrow full of sweets off via the wrong stage exit. The barrow became wedged, so Fitt wandered back on stage, just as Dick Whittington and Alice Fitzwarren were about to sing a song. He hung out with them, talking about fried eggs in a field, as you do. They appeared neither to know what to do nor where to look – Dick, played adroitly by Josh James, was beside himself with laughter. It was panto gold.
Fitt has been there before, of course. He’s part of the furniture at Theatre Severn, as is the venerable Eric Smith, best known for his stints on BBC Radio Shropshire. Smith doesn’t have Fitt’s comedic gifts, but plays a steady and assured straight man to Fitt’s goofy Jack Dee-meets-Eddie Izzard dame. The pair of them work well together, egging each other on with great intuition.
The story is one we all know and love. Dick rocks up in London with nothing more than a cat – who, incidentally, was deliciously funny. The cat was named Maureen, while we’re at it. And I’m pretty sure neither the cat, nor Josh James, as Dick Whittington, was aware of that before they took the stage – it was supposed to be called Tommy. Such is the way of panto.
James was confident and avoided taking anything too seriously. He played his love scenes well with the gorgeous and attractive Jemma Carlisle, as Alice. The audience found it easy to follow them on their journey to living happily ever after.
There were several other notables. Ben Thornton, as the ship’s captain, was at his best while duelling with Fitt. Their schtick – repeating a set-up for a joke, then slam-dunking the punch line – was joyous. The sultan of Morocco was the resident beefcake – some of the female teachers in the audience probably found themselves blushing more than just a little when he flexed his pecs.
Vikki Stone, as Fairy Bowbells, was also good value. Her solo song was a highlight – who knew girls in silver Dr Martens could play the piano so well. King Rat, meanwhile, was wiry and physical and had a damn good voice when given the chance to shine. The junior dancers – and cast dancers – were also impressive. Well-rehearsed, sharp and tight, they helped create a delightful festive celebration.
There was plenty of audience interaction and an unfortunate teacher from Shrewsbury Prep School bore the brunt of Fitt’s continual banter throughout. The poor man was ribbed so mercilessly and relentlessly that he eventually moved seat – though Fitt collared him and baited him all the more.
Talented, quirky and funny, Dick Whittington will serve Theatre Severn well in coming weeks. It’s a crackerjack show, one that families can enjoy as Christmas fast approaches.
What’s that from the back: ‘Oh no they can’t….’
You’re wrong – they absolutely can.