Birmingham Hippodrome, Tuesday 22nd December, 2015
Every year the Hippodrome can be relied on to provide the biggest panto – big name stars surrounded by spectacle – and this year is no disappointment. In fact, all in all, it’s their strongest panto offering for a few years, not least because the well-worn plot is strong; you have to have a framework on which to hang all the skits and routines.
From the curtain, Ben Cracknell’s lighting plunges us into drama, as the evil Abanazar (Marti Pellow) plots world domination. There is the traditional green that goes with the pantomime villain and plenty of swirling spots, combining time-honoured convention with the latest technology. Cracknell takes us from Egypt to Peking via Las Vegas – you could almost watch the show just for the lighting cues.
But that would be silly; you’d miss out on a lot of fun.
Lee Mead is a likeable if understated Aladdin and, of course, can’t get away without singing the song that brought him to national attention, Any Dream Will Do. Mead is a good fit for this company and is teased mercilessly by Julian Clary’s Slave of the Ring (the jokes write themselves). Walking innuendo Clary holds court – most of the costume budget must have gone on his range of exotic costumes (designed by Hugh Durrant) – condescending to make us laugh. His long-suffering quips and near-the-knuckle remarks are the perfect foil for the quickfire, earthy humour of Hippodrome favourite, the indefatigable Matt Slack, who provides the comic energy at the heart of the production as Wishee Washee. Andrew Ryan’s Widow Twankey is a textbook dame, holding her own amid these big personalities, and Landi Oshinowo’s commanding Empress of China is in great voice, but for me it is Marti Pellow who is the revelation of the night. He plays Abanazar straight (well, as straight as one can be in pantoland) and it’s not just his rich singing voice that delights; his moves and his whole look as he stalks and sweeps around exude an air of evil – but he is not above having a bit of fun along with the rest. He’s so good I almost want his wicked plan to succeed!
It’s bright, brash and deliciously low-brow. Everything you could want from a panto – apart from a good old slosh scene. The things Matt Slack could do with a custard pie or a bucket of wallpaper paste! The scene in Twankey’s Laundry would have been an ideal moment for such slapstick shenanigans but I suppose something has to go in order to make time for all the rest. We do get a knockabout physical routine in which Slack joins comedy troupe, the Acromaniacs
The special effects provide several ‘wow’ moments. There’s a flying carpet, of course, but also a couple of huge creatures (I’m trying not to spoil the surprises) that get the children gasping. The almost obligatory 3D sequence provides an impressive interlude but I think these moments are always better when a character or two interacts with them.
Alan McHugh’s script pops with pop culture references, local and topical references, while allowing Clary to have his head, so to speak. Choreography by Karen Bruce keeps the energy coming from the ensemble – Qdos Productions goes all out to fill the Hippodrome stage. This is pantomime-as-event and it works wonderfully.
Garish, glaring and gaudy, this Aladdin is a rich pudding of a show. I suggest you indulge yourself in a massive helping. Perhaps I’ll even go back for seconds.