Katherine MacAlister meets the Dick Whittington cast to find out what's in store at Oxford Playhouse this year

With dress rehearsals in full swing at Oxford Playhouse, the cast of Dick Whittington is ready and raring to go.

Opening tomorrow for their Christmas run of 70 performances, they can’t wait for the audience to breathe life into it.

So what can we expect? “There’s a great cast, pirates, ships, King Rat the villain and sharks. Dick Whittington is on an epic scale this year,” Rebecca, aka Fairy Bowbells, tells me,

“As are the costumes,” Paul Barnhill, Dame Sarah the cook, interjects: “One of my dresses takes three people to lift on because it’s so heavy.

“I mean, for goodness sake, one is a boat! It’s bonkers but that’s what people love and expect.”

With three damehoods under his dress already, what’s Paul’s secret to leading the cast? “To play the dame as a man in a dress. I think it’s funnier. So I don’t speak in a falsetto voice.

“And while I have some great costumes, my makeup is quite minimal and I wear DMs, even if they are pink,” he grins. “I can’t be staggering about in heels until January.”

As the dame, of course, it’s his job to keep the momentum going and play the crowd, easier said than done when trying to keep hundreds of children entertained at the same time.

“They are the least of my worries,” Paul tells me. “We had a hen party in last year who were really rowdy. They sat in the front row and heckled us all the way through.

“They had obviously had a few and were quite intimidating, but it does mean that every night is different and that’s what keeps it all so fresh.

Ricky Oakley who plays Dick Whittington himself adds: “There’s nothing like it. Pantomime is such a wonderful British tradition.

“It is classless and ageless. And if you can make the whole family laugh at different times from the grandparents to the mums and dads and the children, then you’ve done your job. I just love the ridiculousness of it. “

The Panto Young Company, made up of local children, are also being given much bigger speaking parts as fairies and queens.

“Of course it can also all go dreadfully wrong, but that’s half the fun,” Dame Sarah continues. “You just have to keep going and enjoy it. We are just proud to be a part of it.”

And then he laughs, “I’m happy anyway because this year I’ve got a nice rack – my cherry bakewells are quite something.”

Dick Whittington, Oxford Playhouse, Until Jan 6. 01865 305305 or oxfordplayhouse.com