The Players’ annual panto is always an eagerly anticipated event, but for various reasons it has been a few years since I actually managed to see it for myself. That was remedied on Saturday afternoon – and wow, was I impressed. Matthew Smith, returning to the company after a ten-year absence, has taken on the director’s mantle and, to my mind, hasn’t put a foot wrong. Incidentally, the panto back in 2007 (when Matt was Chairman) was also Dick Whittington, directed by Matt’s wife, Georgina (current Chairman), so there may be a little competition afoot. Oh yes there may.
Anyway, I digress. This production has quality stamped all over it, not least in the excellent costumes, many of which have been freshly made by Sue Simmerling’s Carry On Costumes company, and in the superb lighting effects designed by the Regent Centre’s own Shaun Luckly and Tom Critchell. But if at this point you’re thinking that it’s a case of ‘Give ’em the old razzle dazzle’, you couldn’t be more wrong: rarely have I seen such a great cast of principals and chorus, every one of whom gives 110%.
In the title role is Naomi Mantle, well experienced in local theatre but playing her first-ever principal part – not that you’d guess when you watch her confident, smiling and full-of-stage-presence performance. I spotted her small son in the audience and he must have felt so proud of his mum up there on the stage.
Stanley Smith gives a lovely laid-back performance as Dick’s constant companion, Tommy the Cat, probably charming all the rats into submission and certainly appealing to many of the audience, judging by the cheers he received at the curtain call.
There always has to be a baddie and Mike Young’s King Rat fills the role to perfection, displaying a terrific rapport with the audience and a great singing voice to boot. And talking of audience rapport, Malcolm George, playing Idle Jack Sprat, has this in spades and gets the audience going within moments of the show starting.
The part of Alice Fitzwarren can sometimes be a little ‘wimpish’, but Hannah Jean really makes it her own and delivers a delightful performance, as does Denis Carlton as her father, Alderman Fitzwarren.
And what can I say about Paul Barrington’s Gertrude Sprat? He is nothing like the usual big, busty dame but what he lacks in stature he more than makes up for in personality, particularly coming into his own when the small children come up onto the stage to join in the obligatory sing-song.
I just adored Pete Whitaker’s colourful Sultan Peppa, although the jury is still out as to whether he was constantly swatting flies or just into self-flagellation – you’ll just have to go and see it for yourself to understand that remark! Debra Slee is a delightful Fairy Bow Bells, likewise Hayley Ruck as Maisy, while Matt Morrell and Matt Jenkins are suitably loveable as criminals with a heart of gold Beau Larrat and Beau Lamova. There’s also a super cameo from Dave Coward as ‘red herring’ Captain Cutlass.
Add to all that some great dance routines (choreographer Yvonne Gray), super singing all round (I was particularly impressed by ‘We sail the ocean blue’) and a fantastic band (musical director Stuart Darling) and you have a first-class production that is well worth making the journey to Christchurch to see. There are further performances on Sunday 14th at 3.00, Monday 15th, Tuesday 16th, Wednesday 17th, Thursday 18th and Friday 19th at 7.30 and Saturday 20th at 2.00 and 6.00.