Derby Arena, Tuesday 8th December, 2015
All credit to Derby Council for persisting with the wish to stage a pantomime even though the usual venue, the Assembly Rooms, is out of action. Every effort has been made to transform the arena, a velodrome of all places, into a kind of pop-up theatre. It exceeds expectations. Yes, there is still the feel of being at a rock concert about it but both the staging and the content are traditional. It’s a bit of a cavern but it’s full of treasures. We get everything we expect from a panto.
Hunky TOWIE star Dan Osborne pulls out the big guns as the Genie of the Lamp – he doesn’t have much to do in the first act but goes along gamely in the second, keeping the who-what-I-don’t-know patter going while other more seasoned performers are corpsing beside him. Michael McKell is a commandingly villainous Abanazar with a short fuse and a strong singing voice, while Leon Craig’s Widow Twankey is a delightfully domineering dame. The teasing of a member of the audience treads the thin line between banter and bullying – Mike McClean’s irritable Wishee Washee is also guilty of this. The villain may insult us so that we will boo him and oppose his plans; other characters may be cheeky and take the mick, but there’s an acerbic note to some of the remarks here that I didn’t care for. That said, McClean is clearly a skilled panto performer, aimed squarely at the adults present. The script by Keith and Ben Simmons has plenty of innuendo to keep the grown-ups laughing and tons of fun to keep the kids enthralled.
In the title role, pop star Ritchie Neville makes an energetic and amiable principal boy, throwing himself into the action. His duet with beautiful Princess Jasmine (an appealing Jade Chaston) James Bay’s Hold Back the River is the musical highlight of the night. Natasha Hamilton impresses as the Slave of the Ring – it’s a shame we have to wait so long before she gets to sing. As the Chinese Policemen, Ping and Pong, Joseph Elliott and Richard David-Caine bring silliness and slapstick – Yes, I did say Chinese. Even though the story is lifted from the Arabian Nights, the panto tradition is to give the setting a Chinese aesthetic. My political correctness twitches every time, but that’s my problem. The Emperor Chop Suey (Howard Ellis) tends to punctuate his proclamations with martial arts moves and kung fu cries, but that’s about as dodgy as it gets. Ellis redeems himself with a rendition of Nessun Dorma in the wedding scene.
This traditional show in an unconventional venue is a wish come true for pantomime fans. There is plenty of colour, energy and a bit too much smoke, and it’s pleasing to see both form and content being adhered to: the rhyming couplets, the well-worn routines, the spectacle (the flying carpet) carried off by a strong ensemble, going all-out to make the show work in untraditional circumstances.