DICK Whittington, this season's pantomime at Northampton's Derngate Theatre, is a show that should be on everyone's list of things to do this Christmas.

Starring Julian Clary, the production is hilarious - for grown ups and kids.

Whether you love or loathe Clary, this performance is guaranteed to please.

The audience has to wait for the star's entrance.

Dick Whittington, played by Ben Evans, is first on stage - and, for anyone who doesn't know the storyline, explains that he is setting out to become Lord Mayor of London.

Baddie King Rat (Phillip Herbert) is greeted with boos and hisses, and he insults the audience to make sure he is Mr Unpopular. He exits right.

There is a puff of smoke (the words are chosen carefully) and Clary, in a costume only he could wear, enters left.

The audience of mums and dads, teenagers, and children greet him with ecstatic cheers.

He surveys the crowd, waiting for the applause to die down.

"Do you know what I am?" he asks limply, with the resigned look of someone who knows what's coming.

The grown ups fall about. The kids laugh along even though they don't understand the joke.

"I am the Spirit of the Bells. I will protect Dick Whittington with my magic spells," says Clary and the kids cheer like there is no tomorrow.

The show relies very much on audience reaction and participation, and the superb cast wring every possible response from the paying public. There is much "Oh no it isn't" and "He's behind you".

Clary is the star, but he is almost equalled by an actor by the name of Fogwell Flax, who plays Winkle the Shipmate - and you've guessed it, the line "Have you seen my...." is delivered straightfaced by Clary who looks with disdain at the guffawing crowd.

Flax, a skilled impressionist who was a voice on TV's Spitting Image, has made numerous small-screen appearances, and he made the most of his lines - and was particularly funny is a cameo performance with four children from the audience who were invited on stage to see if boys could sing better than girls.

The whole show is superb. The music and dancing is top class, and the script contains every old pantomime joke ever written.

All shows stand or fall on the quality of the cast. The wrong actors can ruin the best material, but the right performers can turn everything to gold - as do this cast.

Most have worked with Clary before, and that produces a relaxed and confident atmosphere.

Clary himself has tremendous stage presence, and while he isn't word perfect, his ad libs as he gets himself out of trouble produce extra laughs for the audience and his fellow actors.

It would be wrong to give the impression that the humour is smutty. It isn't.

There is plenty of innuendo, but the script is cleverly written to deliver laughs for grown ups and for the younger fans - and the cast, particularly Clary, are skilled enough to carry it off.

Laura Evans is the innocent and beautiful Alice Fitzwarren, Tony Jackson is excellent as Sarah the Cook, Ian Gledhill is Captain Cockle, and Ian Oswald is the Sultan of Morocco.

The modernised Derngate Theatre re-opened in October after an 18-month refurbishment that has produced a spectacular building that competes with any theatre, anywhere.

Many people from Banbury and district are regular visitors to the Derngate, but those who aren't should know that getting into Northampton is easy, the Derngate is well signposted, and there is plenty of car parking 100 yards or so from the theatre (80p from 5pm to midnight).

The panto runs until January 14, and is well worth a look.