Panto Launch: DICK WHITTINGTON
Birmingham Hippodrome, Wednesday 7th September, 2016
Today I was fortunate enough to be invited to the press launch for the Hippodrome’s pantomime. This year it’s Dick Whittington and appearing in the title role is the irrepressible all-rounder John Barrowman, star of stage, screen and page – he’s also an author now, writing in partnership with his sister Carole. I’ve been a big fan from way back in the days of Going Live! and I first saw him on stage in Sunset Boulevard – and I’ve been low-level stalking him ever since.
Also appearing are The Krankies, with whom Barrowman has built up a rapport having appeared with them in panto in Glasgow. Musical theatre star Jodie Prenger will be Fairy Bow Bells. Perennial favourite Matt Slack returns for the fourth year running to play Idle Jack, and King Rat will be none other than Phil Mitchell himself, EastEnders favourite, Steve McFadden.
I got to hang out with John Barrowman on a splendidly gaudy throne. What follows is a transcript cobbled together from our chat and a general Q&A session.
Q. Hello, I’m William. I write a blog called Bum On A Seat.
John Barrowman: Congratulations! Put your bum here.
We take the obligatory selfie (“Smile, William! Smile!”) and I tell him I’m looking forward to him giving his Dick to Birmingham this Christmas.
JB: I’m looking forward to giving it. All over Birmingham.
Clearly the man is up for tiresome innuendo as much as I am. And that laugh is infectious. Barrowman is a bath bomb of a man, filling the place with his personality.
Q. John, you spend a lot of time here and a lot of time in the States. You straddle the Atlantic.
JB. There’s a joke for the panto right there!
Q. Why hasn’t panto taken off in the States? Why hasn’t it exported well?
JB. They don’t understand it. They see the dame and they think it’s a drag queen, which is a whole different type of performance. They don’t understand the humour, they don’t understand the irony; it’s a British thing. When I came back to the UK in 1989, I kind of looked at it and I thought, what is going on? But now I get it. I totally get it. I love that we comment on social things, local things and political things. We make fun of the audience and of ourselves. People in the UK get pantomime, they get the humour.
Q. And what do you think of the Birmingham audience?
JB. I love being here. I love the people – they’re very welcoming. When I do my concerts, they sell out – I do two nights. I love shopping in Birmingham. The German market over Christmas is just amazing. Birmingham people love the tradition of panto and that’s what brings me back here. Birmingham has always wanted me back and that’s a thrill for me. Birmingham in winter, it’s really cloudy and dull but the people are friendly and warm and there’s always a smile when you walk down the street.
Q. Will you be attempting a Brummie or Dudley accent this time?
JB. Absolutely not! I’m terrible. The Cat’s going to be Brummie. I don’t know who’s playing the Cat yet. I’ve asked for someone very hunky.
Q. Do you find that people travel to see it, because it’s you?
JB. I have an international audience that comes from as far away as China. France… From Germany, from South America…and the States, and Canada…from all over, and it’s not just two, it’s group-loads come. And they don’t come once, they come every night. And the one thing they have to – I’ve told them – they’ve tended to laugh before the joke, because they wanted the audience members to know they knew what was coming, and I had to tell them, Stop! Because he (Ian Krankie) would come off and he’d go, They’re fucking blowing the jokes again, and he’d say, Can you tell your fucking fans to stop blowing the jokes? I had to go on Twitter and say stop laughing. He’s not getting to say the tag lines.
Q. What’s it like working with The Krankies?
JB. They’re a national treasure. I’ve worked with them for five – six years. The reason it does work is there’s no egos. We’re there to have fun. We’re like a family. We have our arguments but we fix it and move on. The chemistry – I can’t explain it – but when you see it, you’ll wet yourself. Part of the show is what happens in the wings. If those two go off script, I’ll chuck one on stage. If things go wrong, we tend to keep it in – the audience think it’s happening for the first time, but if it works, we keep it in, and that’s how it develops.
He is keen to speak out against those who might deride panto. With the Krankies at hand, his accent reverts to his native Scottish.
JB. Listen, anybody who takes the mickey out of people who do pantomime, they need to have their arses kicked, because this is the hardest – one of the hardest things in theatre and in the entertainment business to do because you’re doing two shows a day, consistently, you have to maintain that over the course – even if you’re sick. Energy levels have to be up; you cannot waver. And, you know, people – some people come in and they do it for the first time, they get a shock.
I refrain from making a remark about the stamina of his Dick. Just about.
Q. What can we expect from this Dick Whittington?
JB. The end of Act One – just a tease: I’ll be upside down… (suggestive grin)
Director Michael Harrison adds: King Rat will have the biggest rat. The end of Act One will not be the usual Dick Whittington dream. 3D is back: there’s an underwater sequence. The special effects have become as much a part of the show as anything else.
Rehearsals begin at the end of November. A rough draft will be given to everyone for them to bring ideas, for routines, for songs. It all sounds like a lot of fun and almost makes me wish I was on the other side of the curtain with them. I can’t wait to see it but for today I’m glad of the chance to meet a real favourite.
Dick Whittington runs from Monday 19th December until Sunday 29th January. Tickets are available now on 0844 338 5000 or from birminghamhippodrome.com