This year the Rodmell Stage Company, after lengthy historic research, threw new light on the tale of Dick Whittington, and brought it to life in a stunning display of pantomime artistry. Singing skills were discovered in a number of residents who never knew they had them, and superb musical support was provided by a well-known duo of wandering minstrels.
The legend of Richard Whittington is well known and at least partly true; he journeyed from Gloucester to London to seek his fortune, made an entrepreneurial voyage to a far-off land to rid it of a plague of rats, and became Lord Mayor of London four times. In the process he amassed large fortunes, the first one by screwing foreigners, and then an even larger one by lending the first one back to his own countrymen, including the king. For this selfless commercial acumen he was awarded a knighthood, and for the rich comic potential of his name and relationship with the 15th century equivalent of Cat-Woman, he gained immortality as the only real-life pantomime character.
What is less well-known is that on his original journey he strayed some distance off-course (this being before the construction of the M4) and fetched up in the small Sussex village known from Saxon times as Rude-Moll – later corrupted into Rodmell. It seems probable that here he embarked on an affair with the pulchritudinous daughter of a village dignitary (i.e. from Lower Rodmell) and a local feline (both seriously up for his advances) and to prove himself launched a practice version of his overseas rat-catching venture (one could hardly call it a dry run in Rodmell).
The tale then becomes less clear; with the proceeds of his success he may have married the wench, or simply invested his newfound riches in the purchase of a tract of land which has ever since been known as The Dicklands. It was clearly his intention in doing so to bring Upper Rodmell up to the social standards of the more fashionable Lower village and thereby make a fortune in Real Estate. It seems however that this venture failed, leaving him no option but to “turn again” towards London and buy up Chelsea instead.
Paul Mellor’s production, so sadly absent last year, treated us to an only-too believable reconstruction of the legend, larded with an only-too-predictable wealth of innuendo (the RSC must be hoping that Britain’s exit from the EU will not see the double-entendre banned as un-patriotic). To be fair, lip service was paid to enlightened post-modern attitudes towards gender issues, with one cast member courageously protesting on stage about the need to move on from gender stereotyping and smutty innuendo (though it was a girl, of course). Possibly the practice of casting a woman in the role of the principal boy, in this case Dick, previously often thought ludicrous and demeaning, can actually be explained in modern gender-enlightened terms as freeing principal dramatic roles from the straightjacket of male domination. Whatever the rationale, it must be said that Dick’s fishnet tights did add a certain frisson.
Another gender-fluid role was taken by Paul Mellor himself as the dissolute Dora Tipples; here the frisson was less marked, though the character was entirely believable. So too was Lucie Sargeant as Fairy Fanny (perhaps a reference to the original Rude Moll?), swapping miracles in the Abergavenny Arms for spells on the stage. Alderman Fitz de Warenne and his daughter Alice (Richard Sellick and Ellie Wilkins) gave performances of studied Lower Rodmell authenticity, and the rest of the cast – assorted rats, cats, low-lifes, idlers and posers, performed well to type and lost no opportunity to mine the rich seam of potential dirt underlying the many references to Richards and Felines. The four performances were admirably well attended, which may have had less to do with the expectation of vulgar wit than the pleasure of hearing a large number of village reputations traduced at the same time, plus the existence of a well-stocked bar at the back. Whatever their motives they would not have been disappointed.
As the village website is not fully competent to undertake dramatic reviews we invited several well-known theatre critics to the performances. Here are selection of their comments.
“CAT-a-TONIC” The Sun
“This Dick comes up trumps” The Star
“Why do we tolerate this filth in the 21st Century? Get rid of the European Court of Justice and bring back the stocks for slander and obscenity” The Daily Mail.
“Listen guys, it’s time for fishnet tights to be consciously uncoupled from male expectations of female-personhood” Gwyneth Paltrow
“Those fishnet tights were pure theatrical Viagra” The Telegraph
“The Rodmell pantomime needs to become more committed to anarchist, trans-national and queer perspectives which embrace the multiple shifting identities of gender-fluid communities. However Paul Mellor’s production is to be commended for updating the traditional boy/girl-girl/boy matrix, not to tear down the categories of male and female but to open them up to less limited possibilities of suggestive, tasteless and adolescent smut”. The Guardian
It only remains for us to congratulate the whole company, and especially Paul Mellor, the CATalyst, on an enjoyable and intellectually stimulating coup de téatre, and to wait eagerly to see what next year will have in store.
Dick Whittington ~~~~~~~~ Abby Benham-Wood
Fairy Fanny ~~~~~~~~ Lucie Sargeant
Cabin Person ~~~~~~~~ Lily
Captain Birdsmess ~~ Spencer Prosser
The Cat ~~ Jane Finch
Alice Fitz de Warrene ~~ Ellie Wilkins
Alderman Fitz de Warrene ~~ Richard Sellick
Dota Tipples ~~ Paul Mellor
King Rat ~~ Richard Roberts
Top Rat ~~ Pete Jarrett
Idle Jack ~~ Lindy Smart
Empress of Shanghai ~~ Phoebe Sawyer
Inspector Wong ~~ Tom Bright
Leader of the Chinese Rats ~~ Jess Bright
Musical Director ~~ Andy Stewart
Percussion ~~ Jacob Prosser
Lighting Martin ~~ Burnaby-Davies
Costumes & Backstage ~~ Sarah Jay
Stage Manager ~~ Poppy Swain
Scenery Design ~~ Eleanor
With help from ~~ Susan D’Souza
Front of House Team
Lesley Prosser, Pauline Burnaby-Davies, Fiona Roberts and Jordan Last
Photography by Andrew Perris of The Photography Firm
Written & Directed by Paul Mellor
Read what the critics thought about the 2016 production:
This year’s production of Snow White and an indeterminate number of Dwarves closed on January 24th, after a lengthy run of three days, during which it achieved huge critical acclaim.
Producer Paul Mellor (who co-incidentally cast himself in one of the star roles), made sure that at the epicentre of the production were some other well-known village characters who gave performances – often highly authentic – of yokels, prince charmings, evil schemers, maidens in and out of distress, voluptuous vamps and the numerous hairy and vertically challenged oddballs who apparently inhabit Little Dicklands. The script lost no opportunity to launch a barbed reference or two to controversial local issues, and by the end few local reputations were left intact. The whole thing was helped along by some excellent music and a liberal supply of booze at the back of the hall.
One of the less savoury characters
And don’t even ask what’s going on here!