First Night: Dick Whittington And His Cat, Barbican Theatre, London

No sex, please: it's a Mark Ravenhill pantomime
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The Independent Culture

To answer everyone's first question about Mark Ravenhill's version of Dick Whittington - no, there is no anal or oral sex in this version and nothing happens to the cat that will have anyone texting the RSPCA. There has even been some effort to sanitise Ravenhill's bio - any inquisitive kiddies will learn from the programme only that "Mark's first play" was a big success. However, there is enough suggestiveness for some parents to find this panto somewhat unpalatable as a treat for the little ones, or even themselves.

Sarah the Cook (Roger Lloyd Pack) is hesitant to sing as "I've got a dry passage - I think I need to suck on something." After a sweet is produced, "I'm lubricated, and I'm ready." As well as campiness, there's playground aggression. A song repeated 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 was that he's not very funny. His characters are resentful or domineering, but lack the detachment needed to be witty, or the lovable dizziness needed to be amusing. Fortunately, the Barbican has cleverly remedied this failing by pairing him with Edward Hall, who as survivors of A Funny Thing 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, a rhumba in which the sultan invites Sarah to be his sultana - cue gags about "my raisin d'etre" and "five portions a day". But the genial fruit fun is given a bad taste when Kelly is repeatedly stopped from singing a word that rhymes with "bit."

Nickolaus Grace is an okay King Rat, but neither he 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 a Sixties TV variety show, with the sewer-dwellers, like the chorus of Londoners, aimlessly twirling and waving their hands.

Two performances are on a higher level than the rest. Derek Elroy, as Tommy the Cat, has a physical agility and a facial expressiveness greater than most of the speaking actors. And Summer Strallen, in the other title role, is an utter delight to see and hear, who is dainty yet vivacious, with an appealing manner.

Ravenhill has said that the beauty of panto is that one can steal jokes from anywhere and everywhere. It's true that panto isn't known for its cutting-edge humour, but the laziness of his attitude is replicated in the show. I laughed a couple of times - when, for instance, the ensemble salaamed to the wrong character, and then turned to the sultan, chanting, "False salaam!" But the feeling, by the end is that we've had all stuffing and no turkey. Oh, sorry - we've got that too.