Roger Hall’s Dick Whittington and his Cat: The Pantomime

Circa One, Circa Theatre, 1 Taranaki St, Waterfront, Wellington

14/11/2009 - 23/12/2009

Circa One, Circa Theatre, 1 Taranaki St, Waterfront, Wellington

02/01/2010 - 16/01/2010

Production Details

Written by Roger Hall
Songs by Paul Jenden and Michael Nicholas Williams
Directed by Susan Wilson


It’s the Christmas Season! The party season! The season of magic for children large and small. AND the season for Circa’s fabulous Roger Hall panto! This year, the team that brought you Cinderella, Aladdin, Jack & the Beanstalk and RED Riding Hood is back, with one of the great traditional pantomime stories.

Dick Whittington an his Cat  opens in CIRCA ONE
on Saturday 14th November at 8pm.

And being a Roger Hall panto everyone knows you’re in for lots of hilarious topical jokes, comic antics, bright lively music, amazing costumes and that all-important panto ingredient – audience participation. It’s time to get into the spirit of the season and join the fun!!

In a bygone era, long ago, brave young Dick leaves his home town (of Hawera) with, of course, his cat! He is on his way to Wellington seeking fame and fortune. What adventures await him!  He meets the mayor, falls in love, stows away, is shipwrecked on a tropical island and is forced to fight the evil King Rat.

And no matter where he travels, Dick cannot shake off his mother  – a “poor lonely widow woman”. Ohhhhhhhhh!

Dick Whittington and his Cat stars a fantastic line-up of singing and acting talent – some old faces and some new.

Heading the team as The Dame is the highly versatile Stephen Gledhill. Well-known to Circa audiences for his comedy and character roles  (ART, The Winslow Boy, An Inspector Calls), Stephen is also a favourite with Wellington Musical Theatre audiences (Guys and Dolls, 42nd Street, Beauty and the Beast, The Sound of Music). Now he is having enormous fun with a role that draws on all his skills.

 “I remember as a kid in the North of England the thrill of Panto Season when there was a choice of pantos live on stage in the local theatres,” says Stephen. “It seems that every town in England had a panto and every show was packed with excited kids.

“I was involved in three pantos in the early 70’s up at Victoria Memorial Theatre; not as the Dame but as one half of the comic knockabout duo. What enormous fun! We even extended one season into Lower Hutt.

“You can imagine my response when Sue Wilson invited me to join the highly successful Circa Pantomime team as the Dame!

“Rehearsals are such a joy, with comic songs by Paul Jenden and original music by Michael Nicholas Williams. Everyone contributes to Roger Hall’s script with topicalities and innuendos which make pantomime what it is. – a rollicking good night out for all the family but especially for the kids who will carry the experience with them for the rest of their lives, just as their grandparents have. I know I’m not the only one who can’t wait for the Panto Season to start!

“Long Live Panto!”

Paul Harrop, who plays Dick Whittington, is a total newcomer to the world of panto.
“I’ve never seen a pantomime live on stage,” he says, “in fact my entire relationship to panto has been through how they’re portrayed in film and television. I am loving the experience so far, especially being part of a Wellington tradition.”

But the other Paul – Paul Jenden- was brought up on Wellington pantos.
Dick Whittington and his Cat is etched in my memory as the first pantomime I ever saw,” he says, “with the incomparable Dorothy McKegg and David Tinkham in the Wellington Opera House. So it’s an absolute thrill to play, at long last, the Cat.”

And what would a pantomime be without a villain (Boo! Hiss!). Nick Blake, who plays the evil King Rat is very pleased that in New Zealand the panto season is in summer!

“This is my second Panto,” he says. “The first one was in Newcastle on Tyne in the 1970s where I played numerous roles in a Panto based on Alice in Wonderland. We had an exhilarating couple of months touring it to snow bound towns in the North of England. The audiences were great though – raucous families who participated vigorously!  Crowd control skills are a vital part of Panto performance.” 

Dick Whittington and his Cat
Festive fun for everyone!     Not to be missed!
14th NOVEMBER – 23rd DECEMBER 2009
2nd  – 16th JANUARY 2010
Performance times:     
14th NOVEMBER – 23rd DECEMBER 2009
Tuesday, Wednesday Thursday  –  6.30pm
Friday & Saturday   –   8pm  
Sunday  –  4pm
2nd  – 16th JANUARY 2010
Tuesday , Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday – 6.30pm
Sunday  –  4pm

$20 PREVIEW     –    Friday 13th November-  8pm
$20 SUNDAY  SPECIAL   –   Sunday 15th November – 4pm 

Prices: $38   Adults;  $30    Students, Senior Citizens and Beneficiaries;  $32   Groups (6+);  $20 Under 25s;  $15   Children;  $90    Family Ticket – 2 adults plus 2 children

BOOKINGS:  CIRCA Theatre  1 Taranaki Street, Wellington       
Phone 801 7992 

Stephen Gledhill as The Dame
Paul Harrop as Dick Whittington
Paul Jenden as The Cat

Theatre , Family , Children’s , Pantomime ,

Loud music

Review by Lynn Freeman 25th Nov 2009

Roger Hall, panto, Circa. A winning end of year combination for the past few years and with big houses. It is again.

Dick Whittington is a much less known story than the usual Panto fare – Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk etc. My co-critic, 11 year old Rose, didn’t know the Whittington story at all and I was blowed if I could remember it myself. Prior knowledge is not necessary in panto, everything’s explained to you, in fact in a song right at the start we’re all reassured there will be a happy ending.

There are lots of topical references and a bit of smut to keep the adults entertained. The show would be more fun with trimming.

Stephen Gledhill does a fine job in the Dame’s mad wig and plentiful innuendos. The love interest, Alice is played by Jessica Robinson who sings like an angel. Paul Harrop was a sturdy and credible Dick, the naïve young farmer who walks from Taranaki to Wellington to seek his fortune but is ripped off and falsely accused of theft. Nick Blake is something of a genius at scary roles and his King Rat portrayal is right up there.

Susan Wilson has been at the helm of all Hall’s pantos and it’s a good match. The songs were memorably arranged by Michael Nicholas Williams.
For more production details, click on the title above. Go to Home page to see other Reviews, recent Comments and Forum postings (under Chat Back), and News. 


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Invention and lunacy are alive and well

Review by Laurie Atkinson [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 16th Nov 2009

The peculiarly English story of Dick Whittington and his cat was first told in a pantomime in 1813 at Covent Garden. In an 1835 panto at Drury Lane Dick was working in Alderman Fitzwarren’s kitchen under the bossy cook Dame Suett. He falls for Fitzwarren’s daughter, Alice, but her dad has other ideas. Someone called The Genius of Industry intervenes on Dick’s behalf and everyone changes into characters of the Harlequinade.

The lunacy hasn’t changed very much in the intervening 174 years except Dick, or, as Roger Hall calls him Richard Milhous Whittington, who has a very firm handshake from milking cows in Hawera, ends up on a tropical island on his way to becoming Mayor of Wellington, where the streets are paved with gold.

The novelty of Hall’s panto is that it is set in "1890 something" (nicely suggested in Paul Jenden’s costumes and his deliberately tatty theatrical setting and Michael Nicholas Williams’ music hall tunes) and there are numerous jokes in which Wellington 2009 is turned into Wellington 1890. We see an old-fashioned bucket fountain, listen to a hymn glorifying The Evening Post (pronounced Evnin’ Pee-oast), and watch a gift wrapper at Kirks give a new meaning to her job.

The jokes, puns, and double entendres are fired machine-gun style at us and they range from the traditionally groan-making awful to some very clever ones (watch out for the one about Fonterra). There are literary jokes (Katherine Mansfield/Ronald Hugh Morrieson), political jokes (Michael Laws), pop jokes (Milli Vanilli/the movies Titanic and Jaws), and dozens more.

A large contingent of young people in the opening night audience seemed to enjoy it all and was eager to join in on stage to sing while scrubbing the deck of S.S. Briscoes, which is manned by Stephen Gledhill’s racy Mrs Whittington, Paul Harrop’s moon-faced Dick, Emma Kinane and Jane Waddell’s opera-loving Ethel and Cecil, Jessica Robinson’s literary Alice, and Paul Jenden’s Tom the Cat. John Wraight plays the appropriately dignified Mayor of Hawera and a rich Wellington banker (Alice’s dad), while Nick Blake revels in the boos his King Rat earns every time he appears.

A fun night out, though the young may need to be told about pounds, shillings, and pence.
For more production details, click on the title above. Go to Home page to see other Reviews, recent Comments and Forum postings (under Chat Back), and News.


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Not as thrilling and delightful as it could be

Review by John Smythe 15th Nov 2009

Another amiable Roger Hall panto directed by Susan Wilson ends the year at Circa. So far we’ve had Cinderella (2005), Aladdin (2006), Jack and the Beanstalk (2007) and Red Riding Hood (2008). This year Dick Whittington and his Cat make the trek from Hawera to Wellington in search of their fortunes.

The opening song (they are all by Paul Jenden and Michael Nicholas Williams) admits today’s children will be unfamiliar with this legend (*see summary below), so rather than playing with enjoyable distortions of the familiar, this one is likely to offer a whole new experience.

It’s 1890-something. Dick (who loves reading Swiss Family Robinson) and his Mother, "a poor lonely widow woman", are Taranaki dairy farmers, whose cow looks more like a yak for some unaccountable reason. The Mayor of Hawera, Lachie the Cockie, is campaigning for Mrs W’s vote, which she finds amusing because she doesn’t yet have one (oh yes she does: all women had the vote in NZ by September 1893, and women who owned property and paid rates – mostly widows and spinsters -had been able to vote since 1876).

A pitiful payout on their milk (cue Fonterra jokes), sees Dick and his Cat head off for the fabled gold-paved city of Wellington along with their neighbours, Cecil and Ethel Bethel, who have also fallen on hard times (cue finance company jokes). And Mrs W follows …

King Rat arises from red-tinged smoke to tell us, in rhyming couplets, that he is totally dedicated to ruining Dick’s prospects. And in Wellington, sailor boy Jack Tar is out for all he can steal or con from anyone, soon using his ill-gotten gains to metamorphose into the snappily-dressed Art Rothschild (yeah right) and ingratiate himself with the Mayor of Wellington Mr Fitzwarren, a wealthy trader, and his beautiful daughter Alice – who wants to be a writer (cue an especially clever literary pun).

Meanwhile Dick – who has fallen in love with Alice at first sight – has got a job as Fitzwarren’s scullery boy, only to discover his mother is their cook and housekeeper. And Ethel and Cecil are selling Evening Posts while dreaming of becoming opera singers …  

There are lots of gags for the adults. Alongside the obligatory innuendo (with a Dick and a pussy in the central roles, what do we expect?) there are many references to old established Wellington businesses, locations and icons – an early bucket fountain even makes an appearance – and bits of topical political satire.

There is not a lot for the children, however, or what there is could be more thrillingly staged; the storm at sea, for example, and the plank-walking sequence could be ramped right up for greater drama and physical comedy.

Most importantly the way the Cat deals to the rats needs to have a clearer and more satisfying pay-off. Part of the problem is that both feline and rodents are soft, fluffy and cuddly. While Paul Jenden’s misunderstood Wolf worked well last year, his Cat lacks a clear personality and expressiveness. Starting off lazy and inept would be fine if he then transformed into an astute and successful hunter. But this also requires the rats to be lean, mean, gimlet-eyed and sharp-toothed baddies that work as a metaphor for whatever attempts to block our paths to health, wealth and happiness.

As the innocent abroad Dick, Paul Harrop transforms quite well from rather wet to the confident leader figure we always knew he could be, given his strong cow-milker’s handshake. But why …? (I’ll come back to this.)

Jessica Robinson’s book-loving, aspiring author Alice is clearly drawn, her singing is especially strong, and their growing relationship – impeded as it is by the dastardly ‘Art’ – certainly does the business for the romantics in the audience while maintaining her status as intelligent and independent.

At last, in a Circa panto, we have a credible villain in Nick Blake’s Rat / Tar / Art and sea Captain, all played with great relish to elicit loud boos from the audience. I just find it a shame that Wilson, as director, sees fit to soft-soap on the final confrontation, robbing the tale of the heroism and consequent triumph it deserves. Indeed without that dimension, built through structured stages of threat and challenge, the children may well feel sidelined while the adults laugh at things that are over their heads. Given the moral of the original story (see below), this is not as good an investment in future theatre audiences as it could be.

Stephen Gledhill’s Mrs Whittington is as lightweight a pantomime dame as I have ever seen, and is yet to fully explore her emotionally manipulative and exploitative nature. While the gross gorgon of old may be passé, some sort of love/hate element is crucial to this role. (A contemporary version of the parent we love dearly but need to take a break from could be the mother who over-protects her child, which is certainly an issue for today’s young people.) 

Emma Kinane and Jane Waddell are a delight as Ethel and Cecil, fulfilling their functionary roles with flair. There is a nice gag where Ethel’s attempt to reach Wagnarian heights are topped by Cecil’s high notes. Knowing what a superb singer Kinane really is, I’m looking forward to the payoff when she gets her full operatic moment … but although the story has it they do achieve their dream, the solo voice is left in the wings.

As Lachie the Mayor of Hawera, Fitzwarren the Mayor of Wellington, the ship’s Bosun and the Chief of the hippy colony on the post-shipwreck island, John Wraight turns in very well wrought performances.  But why does he – along with Dick, Jack Tar (et al) and Cecil – have a pale face and red lipstick?  Is this some obscure reference to German cabaret or what? Beats me.

I have always believed audience involvement is best provoked when our contribution – e.g. shouting "Look out behind you!" – is essential to the mortal wellbeing of a character and the progress of the plot. On opening night, in the absence of such moments, the audience got vocal anyway as best they could, but it’s an area that deserves more attention. Even though they seemed to enjoy it, the bit where the kids get to come up and help swab the deck feels gratuitous and condescending.

Paul Jenden’s set design, lit by Jennifer Lal, juxtaposes peeling paint and chipped wooden panels with red curtains and striped canvas, all set at the edge of a golden sand beach, to accommodate the various locations.  Mostly it works, except on board ship when entrances and exits are still made to and from the downstage sides, over patches of painted sea. This is unnecessary, confusing and just looks sloppy.

The Jenden-designed costumes are great fun, as always, as are the songs he wrote with musical director Michael Nicholas Williams, who works solo, this year, to pump out the tunes and key sound effects – like the bells of St Pauls – from his electronic keyboard.

We leave feeling pleasant enough but not thrilled and delighted. Maybe the original story itself lacks the lustre of the previous four, or is it that the creative team is colouring by numbers rather than bringing true creative ingenuity to the challenges of the genre? All the ingredients are there in principle; they just need to be brought to their full potential. Perhaps as the season progresses they will.  
– – – – – – – – – – –

 * Summarised from the Folktales section of the Long Long Time Ago stories for children website
First recorded in 1605, the Dick Whittington and his Cat legend was based on the real Richard Whittington who served three terms as Lord Mayor of London from 1397 to 1420. Although he was, in fact, the son of a knight, the myth makes him a penniless orphan from a small English town who hears London is paved with gold so goes there to seek his fortune.
   Having got a job as a scullery boy to Mr Fitzwarren, a merchant, he finds his quarters overrun with rats. With a penny earned from shining boots, he buys a cat to frighten the rats away. But when Fitzwarren encourages his staff to send something they own off on one of their ships, to be traded, all Dick has is his cat. So,f eeling sad about it, he lets it go. Then the nasty cook goes too far and he runs away but the Bow Bells tell him to turn back: "Turn again Whittington, thrice Lord Mayor of London."
   He obeys, to discover the ship has returned and his cat has been sold for a fortune to the King of Barbary whose palace was plagued by mice. Dick is very rich now. So he learns the trading trade from Fitzwarren, marries his daughter Alice and becomes Lord Mayor of London, for three terms.  
   It is a story, then, that teaches the value of trade and investment, as well as following your dreams, overcoming obstacles and not running away from your problems.

For more production details, click on the title above. Go to Home page to see other Reviews, recent Comments and Forum postings (under Chat Back), and News. 


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