Dick Whittington at the Barbican

IAN COLLINS Turn again to Dick Whittington – Ian Collins applauds a new show in the City of London where the real-life hero was a medieval mayor.

IAN COLLINS

One joy of seeing a new Barbican production of Dick Whittington - besides being drenched, deafened, singing along and shouting OH NO HE ISN'T! and BEHIND YOU! - is finding out that the collective noun for rats is a mischief.

That's also a good term for a group of pantomimes - those annual outbreaks of carefully-choreographed theatrical chaos which first came to this country (via the Italian commedia dell'arte) in the 1720s.

The winter panto as we know it was pretty much a Victorian invention, starting with poetic parodies of Shakespeare and ending with a bracing blast of earthy humour courtesy of the Cockney music hall.


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Babes in the Wood, Cinderella, Aladdin, Sleeping Beauty, Peter Pan, Jack and the Beanstalk - all these folk legends and fairytales were turned into fresh (or sometimes stale) flights of fancy in a festive form of farce.

The world of gender-bending fantasy was signposted for even the smallest child by the clear fact that the principal boy was plainly a girl and the pantomime dame was no lady either. Curiouser and curiouser.

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Borrowing from melodrama, and lately from the cult of celebrity through the involvement of soap stars and sports stars - the panto form has constantly reinvented itself while remaining recognisable.

Despite this state of flux, I was rather more in a state of flummox on learning that the writer of this year's Dick Whittington and his Cat at the Barbican was Mark Ravenhill. His sexually overt gay romps have included Mother Clapp's Molly House (about a Georgian male brothel) and a play whose three-word title I can't repeat in this newspaper.

The prospect of Ravenhill's Dick drew many a cheap titter, though the shock of this saga in practice is the fact that he has played it (almost entirely) straight. He keeps it gay in the old sense, so it's fun for all the family.

For instance, Sarah the Cook's recipe page in the splendid programme starts and ends as follows:

Custard Pie

Take one paper plate. Cover with shaving foam. Adopt throwing position. Serve.

Spotted Dick

Ask a grown-up for this recipe.

As Ravenhill says: “Panto is a grab bag. It should be messy, rough, anarchic, but with the best possible production values. You can have lovely seats and excellent acting and still celebrate anarchy. That's what pantomime is all about!”

Even the finest acting is served with a slice of ham. Sarah the Cook is none other than Roger Lloyd Pack. At times this starry lead appears plucked from the world of amateur dramatics, but he excels in telly roles as Owen Newitt in The Vicar of Dibley and Trigger in Only Fools and Horses (and is a classical stage actor of note).

King Rat Nickolas Grace is also a ham-ster. But he will forever be cast in my mind as Anthony Blanche in the sublime TV production of Brideshead Revisited.

And at times this cleverly-stitched production seems set to come apart at the seams with near-riots among attendant under-10s.

Generally appalled by child acting, I was amazed and amused by the instant and total involvement of kids in the stalls. Audience participation is vital in pantomime.

With added ditties from the likes of Dillie Keane and Norfolk's Kit Hesketh-Harvey (the latter giving us The Barbicancancan) a new take on an old song and dance is perfectly in place.

Of course, this Dick Whittington is anyway ideally located in the City of London.

The original Richard Whittington was born in Gloucestershire around 1350 and came to the capital to seek his fortune in trade - as apprentice to a cloth merchant.

Somehow this contemporary of Chaucer prospered spectacularly, providing luxury textiles to the aristocracy and royal court. Between 1397 and 1420 he was four times mayor of London, with a large house near the church of St Michael Paternoster Royal, in the centre of the City.

Childless, he gave himself over to making money and giving it away. He funded Whittington's Longhouse - a public loo beside the Thames with 64 seats for men and another 64 for women (an egalitarian provision to shame many a modern theatre) - plus a new ward at St Thomas's hospital in Southwark for the care of unmarried mothers.

On his death, in 1423, he left £7,000 (equivalent to £7m today) to charity. His executors used the cash to found an almshouse, rebuild Newgate prison, establish a library at the Guildhall and improve the City's water supply.

Even today the Mercers Company - of which Whittington was once master - continues to support projects aiding the sick and the poor on the basis of the medieval mayor's bequest.

A stone of 1821 stands at the foot of Highgate Hill close to the supposed spot where the young Dick and his fabled cat turned again - abandoning a plan to return to Gloucestershire after a vision of future glory in the capital.

Alas, there is no evidence that this merchant and mayor ever owned a cat - although given the prevalence of rats in late 14th century London (carrying the fleas that brought the Black Death that had lately killed a third of Europeans), only medieval mugs were mogless.

The beastly linkage was all part of a legend spurred by a rather mysterious figure recalled only for great wealth and generosity. How exactly had he made all that money?

A traditional folktale from Scandinavia to Persia concerns a poor boy who owned nothing in the world except a cat.

By chance he travelled to a faraway land overrun by rats, where cats were unknown. Selling a champion feline hunter to the country's ruler, he made another kind of killing.

This popular saga had already become attached to Richard Whittington by the end of the Elizabethan era, with a play based on the man and the myth produced as early as 1606. Over the next two centuries the story of Dick and cat evolved through more dramas, ballads, books and a puppet play seen by Samuel Pepys.

On Boxing Day 1814 a pantomime premiered in Covent Garden - with the great clown Joey Grimaldi as cook Dame Cicely Suet (oh bring back the panto dame's glorious name!).

The world of the real Richard Whittington can be explored in the Museum of London's lately-restored medieval gallery - a rat's throw from the Barbican. Special guided tours will be given on Saturday, February 3 at 1, 2 and 3pm.

But back to the rodent business… the panto programme informs us that there are as many rats as people in the UK today.

They live for around 18 months, and one pair can produce a colony of 2,000 in a year. Scrupulously clean feeders on any old rubbish, they need to keep gnawing.

While eating a tenth of their body weight every day, rats can squeeze through openings only half an inch wide…

t Dick Whittington and his Cat is at the Barbican (0845 1207550) until January 20. Evening and matinee performances. Tickets £12 to £35, school shows £8 to £12. The Museum of London on London Wall is open Monday to Saturday, 10am to 5.50pm, Sunday noon to 5.50pm. Free entry. Tube: St Paul's, Barbican or Moorgate. It is a 10-minute walk from Liverpool Street.

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