If your totally committed college principal writes (both words and music... with a book by Daniel O'Brien) and MDs your panto herself then you’re at a huge advantage not shared by most students in most training institutions. It’s partly why this Dick Whittington and His Cat is fresh, fun and funny – unlike many turgid shows it has been my misfortune to sit through this year.
The other reason is that they’re a notably talented bunch, wittily directed by Howard Samuels. Now in their final year of theMTA’s two year accelerated course, these students are learning on the job to manage a young, unpredictable audience and to adjust and time the material. I saw the sixth performance of an intensive pre-Christmas run along with eighty-six excited and excitable local primary school children who were clearly having an unforgettable afternoon. And the company on stage were so on top of what they were doing that they were actually better than some of the seasoned pros I’ve seen recently trying to do the same thing.
Jack Toland, for instance, shines brightly as Sarah the Cook. He simpers, cracks jokes straight to audience, trots daintily around the set and commands the stage, putting his own fine spin on the dame concept.
Hazel Leishman is quite something as Queen Rat too. Tall, slender and looking fabulous in glittery mauve with rat make-up she moves and cackles with spiky grace, works her hands nicely and pulls a wide range of very expressive faces as well as singing to the manner born.
Darcy Manning is strong as Dick, packing lots of personality and there’s an enjoyable feline performance by Tiago de Sousa as Tommy the Cat.
It’s Lewis Thomas’s songs and Daniel O'Brien's script which really makes it, though. The songs are all original – not a stray pop song in sight. It’s all tuneful and appropriate with occasional references such as a snatch of Sailor’s Hornpipe for one number and the repeated use of a few bars from Cats as a leitmotiv for Tommy. I liked the framing device: a group of 21st Century schoolgirls on a trip to Highgate with two teachers. And I’m entranced by her use of internal rhyme (bitten kitten, unpleasant peasant, soggy moggy, nerdy hurdygurdy) as opposed to the usual contrived rhyming couplets. And there are original jokes (no spoilers) in this show which are delivered so that children in the audience hear them and get the chance to respond.
Because performers in this show are students and not yet professionals it is not Sardines' policy to give a star rating. I would, however, like them to know that had I seen this same show in another context, I would have been happy to put four stars on it.