Dick Whittington, Barbican, London <!-- none onestar twostar threestar fourstar fivestar -->

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The Independent Culture

To answer the first question about Mark Ravenhill's panto - no, there is no anal or oral sex, nor nudity, and nothing happens to the cat that will have anyone texting the RSPCA. There is enough suggestiveness, however, for some parents to find this panto unpalatable as a treat for the little ones, or even themselves. Sarah the Cook (Roger Lloyd Pack) is hesitant to sing because "I've got a dry passage - I think I need to suck on something". As well as campness, there's playground aggression. One song goes, "You have lots of bogeys, and you stink of poo." Laugh? I thought I'd double up on the paroxetine.

While Ravenhill's scabrousness might seem to disqualify him as a panto writer, a greater objection, it seemed to me, is that he's not very funny. His characters lack the detachment needed to be witty, or the lovable dizziness needed to be amusing. Fortunately, the Barbican has remedied this by pairing him with Edward Hall, who, as survivors of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum or Once in a Lifetime will know, is nearly as good at directing jokes as Mrs Thatcher was at telling them. This Dick Whittington is a protracted (nearly three-hour) exercise in mediocrity, its tone offhand and its pacing slack.

Lloyd Pack's dame is an old drag queen, gamely getting on with it but not without complaint ("I'm workin' my tits off here"). Nor is Sam Kelly, as Alderman Fitzwarren and his long-lost twin, the Sultan of Morocco, heartwarming and dotty; he's merely plodding. The two duet in the show's best song, in which the sultan invites Sarah to be his sultana - cue gags about "my raisin d'être" and "five portions a day". Neither Nickolas Grace (King Rat) nor his minions made my flesh tingle, let alone crawl. The fault here lies less with the actor than with a panto that keeps trying to be a West End musical, and ends up as a Sixties TV variety show.

Ravenhill has said that panto can steal jokes from anywhere and everywhere. It's true that panto isn't known for its cutting-edge, alternative humour, but the cynicism and laziness of his attitude is replicated in the show. The feeling, by the end, is that we've had all stuffing and no turkey. Oh, sorry - we've got that, too.

To 20 January (08451 207 550; www.barbican.org.uk); a version of this review has already appeared in some editions of the paper