Category Archives: Review

Bleak House

GIRL FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY

Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Tuesday 7thFebruary 2023

Imagine Bob Dylan wrote Les Misérables but set it in 1930s dustbowl America à la Steinbeck.  If you can do that, you’re some way to understanding what this show is like.  Technically, a jukebox musical, raiding Dylan’s back catalogue and stringing songs together to tell a story, except it’s not, not really.  The story, with script by the excellent Conor McPherson (of The Weir fame) could work as a straight  play (Well, I’ll come to that later).  The songs could stand alone without the story.  And so instead of a conventional piece of musical theatre where the songs reveal character or develop the plot, what we have here is a straight play interrupted by concert-like performances of the musical numbers.

The setting is a guesthouse under threat of foreclosure by the bank.  The proprietor Nick (Colin Connor) struggles with his estranged wife, Elizabeth, who has developed some kind of dementia, while cajoling his wannabe-writer and alcoholic son to get a job.  Nick is waiting for his mistress’s ship to come in; she’s a widow waiting for probate and they have plans to set up a new guesthouse elsewhere… That American dream, you see.  Meanwhile, Nick’s adopted black daughter is mysteriously pregnant, so he’s trying to marry her off to an elderly shoe repairer, for her own good.  To top it off, there’s a storm brewing and two strangers arrive in the middle of the night, a former boxer and a bible salesman…

There’s more humour than you might expect in this tale of economic hardship, unemployment,  racial prejudice, alcoholism, failed marriage, senility, learning difficulties, and just about every other miserable thing you can think of.  In the first half, at least.  But there are so many characters, there’s not really enough time for things to develop.  It takes a narrator, Dr Walker (Chris McHallem) to provide exposition and to wrap things up at the end.  There are some fine dramatic moments, well played, but apart from the general misery of it all, I’m not particularly moved.  McPherson writes great scenes but, judging by this show, is not so hot when it comes to dramatic structure beyond these vignettes of misery.

And then there are the songs.  Not Dylan’s greatest hits shoehorned in, but a careful curation of some of the more obscure tracks, rearranged to fit the period.  The actors play instruments to augment the onstage band creating a rich sound, but it’s the singing that stands out.  For example, songs like ‘Has Anyone Seen My Love?’, ‘Slow Train’ (wonderfully sung by Joshua C Jackson) and ‘I Want You’ (Gregor Milne) all knock your socks off.  But it’s the ladies who really deliver the goods.  Maria Omakinwa as the elegant widow Mrs Neilson is just about perfect, and so is Justina Kehinde’s pregnant Marianne.  Surprisingly, perhaps, demented Elizabeth (Frances McNamee) almost steals the show with her vigorous dancing and superb vocals. I invariably prefer Dylan’s songs when performed by anyone other than the songwriter, so this score serves to remind me of Old Bob’s songsmithery.

It’s a show of two halves, then, beautifully presented, albeit on a dingy stage, and while I enjoy the drama and love the songs, the two halves don’t quite fit together.  An excellent production, to be sure, but it’s a bit of a downer.  You won’t be dancing in the aisles, but you might be uplifted a little by the gospel-style finale before the crushing bleakness of existence closes in.

Oh well.  I’m off to write a show about the Cod War, using the music of The Smiths.  Why not?

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Marianne (Justina Kehinde) – Photo: Johan Persson


Storm in a Recycled Cup

THE TEMPEST

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Monday 6thFebruary 2023

There is a welcome drive in contemporary theatre for sustainability and being green.  The RSC is at the forefront: they’ve been recycling the same 37 plays for decades!  Seriously, anything that reduces or offsets an organisation’s carbon footprint can only be for the good, can’t it?  Can this example of sustainable theatre sustain my interest?

People who are shipwrecked on desert islands know all about repurposing and upcycling in order to provide shelter for themselves, and so it is no surprise to see that Tom Piper’s set follows suit.  What does surprise me is that after many years of being marooned, Prospero’s place isn’t a little bit tidier?  Perhaps she just likes a junkyard aesthetic.  I say ‘she’ because this production boasts a female Prospero, in the form of Alex Kingston; the parental qualities of the character as good a fit for a mother as the more-traditional father.  What jars at first is the use of ‘male’ forms of address.  This Prospero is still a Prince and a Duke and a master – which shows how firmly rooted gender is in our use of language.

In the central role, Kingston storms it, as her plots involve everyone else on her island.  There is power and tenderness in her portrayal, her powers of sorcery (which would have got any woman burned at the stake back in the day) as convincing as her maternal affections.  She is supported by  Jessica Rhodes’s lively Miranda and Heledd Gwynn’s enthusiastic Ariel.

Director Elizabeth Freestone highlights the comedic elements of the script and utilises the physicality of the cast to create the effects of the magic.  This also adds comedy (Joseph Payne’s Ferdinand, rolling around, for example) and also an atmosphere where potentially anything could happen.  A particularly effective moment is the arrival of Ariel and the Harpies in front of a giant gilt-framed mirror.  At other points, the impact is not as well focussed, making for a patchy overall impression.

Ishia Bennison brings warmth and humour as the garrulous, cross-gendered Gonzalo, while Peter De Jersey adds heartfelt grief as the King of Naples sorrows for his lost son.  Both, separately and as part of the ensemble, are adept at the physical aspects of the performance: the opening shipwreck is stylishly and effectively depicted.

Tommy Sim’aan’s Caliban is all human and no creature, which, I suppose, highlights the racism and colonialism that have reduced him to a slave on his native island.  I just prefer more of a touch of the ‘other’ to the character.  Simon Startin’s Stephano and Cath Whitefield’s Trinculo make an enjoyably drunken double act, but it is Kingston’s Prospero that dominates the action and our engagement.  Her delivery of ‘Our revels now are ended…’ is powerfully emotive and her heartbreak at releasing Ariel is quietly devastating. There is never any sense that Prospero and Miranda might be in jeopardy; Kingston is in control of everything.

Much value is added to the production by the original music and sound design, courtesy of Adrienne Quartly, and there is a lot to enjoy in this busy production.  On reflection though, I would ditch the mirror, and keep the stage almost if not entirely bare.  The physicality of the cast is more than enough to convey what needs to be conveyed.  Recycled sets don’t have to be rubbish.

☆ ☆ ☆ and a half!

Staff meeting: Alex Kingston as Prospero (Photo: Ikin Yum)


Shooting for the Moon

STARCHITECTS: A Mission to the Moon!

Birmingham Hippodrome, Friday 3rd February 2023

Motionhouse’s new production is aimed squarely at a family audience, in particular the youngest members of the family.  Five children, portrayed by grown-up performers, are having a sleepover, although sleep is the farthest thing from their fertile little minds.  With tireless energy, these effervescent children bounce around, using cardboard boxes in their play-acting, creating a ceaselessly imaginative sequence in which the boxes are hiding places, an aeroplane, a castle, a train… It’s a dazzling way to start the show before the story proper begins.

The boxes form a huge telescope through which they espy the moon and two girls (Moon fairies, no less).  The kids decide to go to the moon to visit the fairies.  The boxes become a ziggurat on which is projected their rocket – the backdrop is a vast screen onto which stunning visuals are displayed.  The screen is made of strips so the performers can disappear into holes, through windows and so on, and magically reappear.  Visually, the show cannot be faulted.  The digital imagery, by Logela Multimedia, adds colour and excitement as well as denoting setting.

So the kids get to the moon, encounter an alien life form with slinkies for limbs and eyes where its hands should be, but they’re never really in danger.  They meet the fairies and then get back in their rocket and come home.  All of this is underscored by original music by Tim Dickinson and Sophy Smith, which definitely adds atmosphere and drama but at times it’s a bit too loud.  The performers often vocalise to each other and sometimes invite the audience to call out, but we can’t often hear what they’re saying and only glean an impression of their dialogue – which is fine, this is a visual show after all where movement is the main focus, but a bit of contrast in volume levels would have helped.

The performers are uniformly excellent, agile and acrobatic.  Their timing when interacting with the animation is impeccable.  The characters are also uniform in their exuberance and behaviour so it’s hard to pick out anyone in particular.  The direction by Kevin Finnan and the choreography, also by Finnan and the cast, keep the simple story clear and easy to follow.  I would have liked a bit more jeopardy other than a couple of ‘It’s behind you’ moments to help me engage with the characters and their adventure.

Visually stunning and technically perfect, the show has plenty of wow moments but it doesn’t engage on an emotional level, which is the only missing ingredient for me.

☆ ☆ ☆ and a half!


When life gives you…

LEMONS LEMONS LEMONS LEMONS LEMONS

Harold Pinter Theatre, London, Thursday 2nd February 2023

This revival of Sam Steiner’s hit play is a likeable and vibrant production.  It tells of a society where a law is passed restricting individuals’ word counts to just 140 per day.  It’s to reduce stimulus overload or something like that, but really it’s about control.  We follow the relationship of Bernadette and Oliver as the law is proposed, protested against, voted for, and implemented, through a series of non-chronological scenes.  Gradually, we piece together their love story and their communication problems.

As Bernadette, former Doctor’s companion Jenna Coleman is bright-eyed and assertive.  A fledgling lawyer, Bernadette relies on words to do her job and so invariably she uses up most of her daily quota at work, to the frustration of Aidan Turner’s bohemian/socialist Oliver.  Sparks fly between the two actors, the chemistry between them is almost palpable, but the nature of the piece requires the characters to be shut off from each other, unable to express themselves freely and fluently, and so we are ultimately shut out, and only know them in glimpses. 

Played against a stylish backdrop of shelving laden with discarded objects, divided by strips of bright light, there is often only the briefest lighting change between scenes, a split second for the actors to change position and demeanour.  Director Josie Rourke keeps the stage bare, allowing the dialogue to denote location – are they at home, in a restaurant, at a pet cemetery? – and Coleman and Turner approach each scene with the vim of members of a cocky improv troupe, and they’re both so appealing they take us along with them.

What we don’t get are answers to questions such as, How would such a law be policed?  What would be the penalties for infringement, for going over your daily limit?  How would it work in other spheres: hospitals, schools and so on.  Pretty soon, the law courts are given exemptions, and so is the House of Commons, because, of course, the kind of politicians who would make such legislation, would look after themselves… The play skirts around Brexit like the elephant on the dancefloor.  What kind of people would want something that impoverishes and restricts the lives of everyone in the country? Talk about being sold a lemon! Oliver is a driving force in protests against the word limit, while we in the real UK, are faced with having our right to protest criminalised by an increasingly authoritarian regime… The play is so close to touching on this.

As a love story, then, it’s a bit shallow.  As a thought experiment, it engages but doesn’t really develop.  “Bit cerebral,” mutters the woman next to me as she puts her coat on, and then proceeds to discuss with her companion where they will go for a meal.  I spend longer thinking about the play and conclude it’s a fine idea that only scratches the surface, but it’s effortlessly enjoyable thanks to the actors who both approach their roles with, I’m going to say it, zest.

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Aidan Turner and Jenna Coleman at loggerheads (Photo: Johan Persson)


Radio Ga Gatsby

THE GREAT GATSBY

Blue Orange Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 22nd January, 2023

Joe Landry’s adaptation of the F. Scott Fitzgerald classic novel takes place in a New York radio theatre in the 1920s.  We meet a troupe of half a dozen actors who will perform the play, taking on all the roles and the sound effects between them.  This kind of setting allows the staging of material that would otherwise be too expensive, relying on the audience’s imagination to picture Gatsby’s vast mansion, for example.  It also makes the staging of action scenes (the car accident) within reach.

Our host is Freddie Filmore, played by Louis McCoy who, as well as taking on the roles of Gatsby and Wilson is an excellent pianist; Jake Laurents (Thom Stafford, no relation) plays the story’s narrator Nick; Jason Adam brings humour to the role of Tony Hunter, the kind of actor who reads the stage directions as well as the dialogue, playing Tom Buchanan.  Gatsby’s love interest is portrayed by Jessica Melia as Sally Applewhite; Terri-Leigh Nevin’s Lana Sherwood gives us an excellent Myrtle Wilson, complete with squeaky Noo Yoik accent; and Charlotte East’s Nellie North adds a touch of class as Jordan Baker.  (I hope I’ve got everyone’s names right!)

All six prove their versatility in characterisation and demonstrate exceptional vocal skills.  Director Alexandra Whiteley gives us plenty of visuals too in what was in danger of being a rather static affair.  To see the cast create highly effective sound effects is a marvel to behold, especially the horse noises of Jessica Melia and the car noises of Charlotte East and Jason Adam.

There is some comedy with Jason Adam’s Tony getting things wrong, and I would have liked more of this tension, the pressure to get things right and not to miss cues.  The action is interrupted for commercial breaks, where the cast sing the jingles.  Illuminated signs encourage us to applaud when appropriate – not that I need much encouragement.

The second half allows the Fitzgerald to come to the fore for the dramatic and tragic denouement, using the techniques the cast have demonstrated so amusingly in the first, but the whole thing ends on a cheerful note with a joyful Charleston to see us off.

Great!

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆


Disaster Area

THE MERCY SEAT

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Saturday 21st January, 2023

It’s the day after 9/11 – or, the 10th of September, 2001, and in an apartment in New York, a couple are going through their own calamity.  Ben (Joe Palmer) is tightly wound, ignoring the incessant phone calls from his wife, while his boss/employer-cum-mistress Abby (Angela Hewitt) tries to coax him to do the Right Thing (i.e. fess up to his wife).  Considering the biggest terrorist outrage in American history just happened a few blocks away, these two (Ben especially) are incredibly self-obsessed, paying only lip service to the tragedy and colossal loss of life.  Ben hasn’t reported in at home and is presumed missing and/or dead.  It’s a glorious opportunity to start afresh…if only he had the guts.  If these two were anything like the rest of us, they would have spent that day glued to the news!  I know I did.

Twenty years on, Neil LaBute’s play is beginning to creak.  The immediacy has gone and we’re left with this two-hander about an unhappy couple.  As Ben, Joe Palmer nails the emotional immaturity, whininess and egotism of the younger man, while Angela Hewett’s more mature Abby is able to keep it together for the most part.  There is a lack of chemistry between them and it’s hard to see what they saw in each other in the first place, what about Ben would entice Abby to risk her professional career by dating a co-worker and underling.  Everything from their personal concerns to who the hell is Audie Murphy is delivered with the same intensity, which deadens the humorous lines.  At times it sounds like Ben is sounding off to his therapist.  Lighter moments need to be lighter.  There needs to be some level of playfulness between the two before the tension between them boils over.  As a result, I found myself not caring about either of them.

It doesn’t help that the writing uses the soap opera technique of having the characters address each other by name every other line.  In soap, this works as exposition for the casual viewer, but here, with only two characters, it’s not that difficult for us to remember who is whom.  Once I caught on to this, it irritated the hell out of me. 

The traverse staging allows a greater sense of intimacy in the already intimate Ron Barber studio, and the sparse furnishings suggest a classy New York apartment – stronger New York accents from the cast would also add to the sense of place and proximity to the tragedy.

Being the Crescent, production values are high, but the result is a solid production of a weak play.  And if I never hear that bloody Nokia ringtone again it will be too soon.

 ☆ ☆ and a half

Angela Hewitt and Joe Palmer as the unhappy couple Abby and Ben (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)


Peter Panto

THE PANTOMIME ADVENTURES OF PETER PAN

Regent Theatre, Stoke on Trent, Thursday 29th December, 2022

The title clearly states that this is not going to be the J.M. Barrie classic.  In fact, this is more of a sequel to the well-known story.  It begins with Tinkerbell, in the panto role of Good Fairy, welcoming Wendy Darling back to Neverland.  There is trouble afoot.  Something about supplies of pixie dust in short supply, blah blah.  Of course, the plot is not the main focus of pantomime.  The main focus of pantomime is fun, and this one has it in spades.

Appearing as Smee is local superstar and Regent favourite, Jonathan Wilkes who, let’s face it, is the one everyone comes to see.  Wilkes is the embodiment of pantomime: he sings, he dances, he can handle an audience and a comic monologue, and as director, he knows how every aspect of the show should work.  He has a cocky but not arrogant persona, a cheeky boyish charm that enables him to get away with the most bawdy lines.  Never mind Pan, he is the one who has never grown up and we all love him for it.

This year, Wilkes is hooked up with returning favourite Kai Owen as the nefarious pirate Captain, supposedly reformed having been poohed out by the crocodile.  The highlights of the show are their routines – some of them time-honoured and traditional, others fresh and new.  A scene where they drag up as mermaids is particularly hilarious, and as the run reaches its end, it’s obvious they are still very much enjoying themselves.

In the title role is a youthful and energetic Rory Sutherland, with all the right poses and heroic stances.  This Peter is an action hero as well as an adorable twink.  The plot means he is grounded until the pixie dust shortage is resolved, so when Sutherland finally takes to the air, we’re with him.

Amanda Coutts’s Tinkerbell is a gorblimey kind of fairy, bearing no ill-will or jealousy towards Hannah Everest’s confident and earnest Wendy Darling.  Both girls have powerful singing voices, and it’s great to see Wendy play an active role in the climactic defeat of Captain Hook.

The plot is new yet encompasses what we expect from both panto and Peter Pan.  The script by Alan McHugh and Jonathan Wilkes is riddled with jokes, some of them old, some of them new, and only a few of which never land.  There’s the almost obligatory Twelve Days of Christmas, which rapidly descends into chaos, the ancient ‘Who’s in the first house?” routine… Wilkes and Owen carry it all off with aplomb.  All right, so we don’t get out-and-out slapstick, but the element I miss the most is one of the most pivotal characters in the pantomime pantheon.  There is nothing like a dame.  For me, this is all that’s lacking from this ribald and rowdy, rollocking and riotous piece of theatre.

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ and a half!

Hannah Everest, Jonathan Wilkes, Amanda Coutts, and Rory Sutherland (Photo: Claralou Photography)


Turn Again

DICK WHITTINGTON

Birmingham Hippodrome, Tuesday 20th December, 2022

After all these years, Hippodrome pantomime favourite Matt Slack finally lands a title role.  At last he is able to make a Dick of himself.  If you’ve seen him before you know exactly what you’re going to get, and Slack delivers exactly what they pay him for.  No one does what Matt Slack does better than Matt Slack, but there is a strong whiff of we’ve seen it all before.  To paraphrase a line from the pantomime, Turn again, turn again, Matt Slack’s doing his turn again. 

You can’t help but admire his energy, his skill set (his impressions are off the scale!) and his wit – he is co-credited as scriptwriter along with veteran panto scribe, Alan McHugh.  The script is aimed well above the heads of the youngest members of the audience; it’s quite the rudest panto I’ve seen this year, which is fun for the grown-ups who have forked out for the tickets. 

As ever at the Hippodrome, it’s a massive spectacle.  An early appearance of the Rat King is breath-taking.   Unfortunately, its dialogue is largely drowned out by the atmospheric music that underscores the scene.  Playing the Rat King’s human emissary, the Rat Man is housewives’ favourite, Marti Pellow, who certainly looks the part.  Elegantly costumed, he struts around, performing tuneful songs of his own composition, but he is largely separate from the action.  It’s like he’s in a different show.  The rest are in a panto while he’s doing his musical theatre thing.

There’s a song about panto and how great it is.  We don’t need to know we’re watching a panto.  They don’t need to tell us they’re in a panto.  Again, the show veers toward musical theatre, which ain’t panto.  There’s no slosh scene, no ‘It’s behind you’ moment, and audience participation is kept to a bare minimum.

Conventionally a dancer is cast as the Cat.  Interestingly, we get local character Doreen Tipton instead.  Doreen has a marvellous deadpan woe-is-me delivery, and it’s great to see her branching away from her usual mockery of people on benefits.  As the Spirit of the Bells, TV’s Dr Ranj prances and sparkles around, very much being himself and proving himself a good sport.  Ironically, he serves as ‘straight man’ to Matt Slack’s extended pun-filled stories.

Andrew Ryan is Felicity Fitzwarren, a garishly glamorous dame, who definitely needs her own moment in the show out from under the shadow of Slack’s spotlight, while former pop star Suzanne Shaw provides love interest as Alice Fitzwarren. Shaw is strangely underused, with no solo number nor even a duet with Slack.

The cast is supported by a hardworking ensemble of ten, and a seven-piece band, led by Robert Willis. It’s a great looking, great-sounding production, beautifully lit by Ben Cracknell, and there are laughs aplenty throughout. What the show gains in scale and splendour, it loses in heart. Slick and spectacular, it’s enjoyable to be sure, but I feel it lacks some of the elements of the very art form it extols in song.

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

What a Dick! Matt Slack reigning supreme (Photo: Paul Coltas)


Merry (Christmas) Men

ROBIN HOOD

The Attic Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Friday 16th December, 2022

You might think the intimate performance space at Stratford’s Attic Theatre would be too restrictive to stage a pantomime.  Well, you’d be reckoning without the genius of Tread The Boards’ resident writer-director John Robert Partridge.  He puts the focus on his cast of six to deliver all the conventions of the art form, supported by the tech crew, and quite frankly, we are too busy laughing to miss grand-scale spectacular scenes which other, larger venues can accommodate.  Partridge frames the story how we would expect: a fairy in a pink spot, the villain in a green… but because it’s Robin Hood, we don’t know precisely what the plot will entail, unlike the more well-worn pantomimes, and this adds freshness to the production.

Opening the show and winning us over instantly is Florence Sherratt as fabulous Fairy Fabulous, friendly and funny, contrasting sharply with Joshua Chandos’s marvellously wicked Sheriff of Nottingham.   Chandos is darkly camp and never short of hilarious – and he has the best hair.

Emily Tietz’s Maid Marian is no shrinking violet, with her movie-star looks and a valiant spirit; while Dan Grooms’s Robin may be a long time coming but is definitely worth the wait.  For all his posing, posturing, and knee-slapping, it is Robin who must be rescued from the Sheriff’s clutches by Marian and the others.

Those others: Silly Willy – Dominic Selvey is a lovable buffoon with an indefatigable supply of quick-fire one-liners.  When he gets three volunteer children from the audience for a rendition of Music Man, he’s on a steep learning curve!   Playing Willy’s mother, Dame Tuck, is Pete Meredith, a consummate panto dame, cheeky bordering on bawdy, and sporting a range of eye-wateringly garish outfits as the show goes on.

The songs are mainly lifted from Disney, with a touch of ABBA; there’s a wonderful send-up of the Bryan Adams mega-hit, Everything I Do I Do For You, and an exciting climactic swordfight between Robin and the Sheriff while Dame Tuck belts out her best Bonnie Tyler.

Adam Clarke’s set design comprises a stylised forest backdrop complete with a real tree trunk, the branches of which stretch across the ceiling.  The set is rendered multi-purpose by Kat Murray’s lighting and the dialogue, proving you don’t need elaborate scenery to evoke location and atmosphere.

There’s plenty of audience participation.  This reviewer was picked on to be Dame Tuck’s ‘boyfriend’ and it could have been worse!  I think I got off lightly…

A riotous, fun-filled evening and an affordable seasonal treat.  As a measure of every panto, I glance around at the nearby children in the audience to see if they’re enthralled.  And tonight they’re lapping it up.

Magical.

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Full of beans: Dominic Selvey gives us his Silly Willy, with Pete Meredith’s Dame Tuck behind

(Photo: Andrew Maguire Photography)


Wishing and Washing

ALADDIN

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Wednesday 14th December, 2022

Aladdin has always been a curious mix as a pantomime, based on a tale from the 1001 Arabian Nights, with a lot of Chinese reference points chucked in.  Writer-director Will Brenton overcomes the outdated stereotypes by translating the action from Old Peking to ‘Shangri-Fa’, located somewhere in The Mystical East.  Therefore, in terms of costumes and scenery, anything vaguely Asian goes!

And it’s a good-looking show, blending old-school scenic elements with a video cyclorama. 

The action kicks off with villainous Abanazar (Michael Greco off of EastEnders) revealing his dastardly plot.  He unleashes the Spirit of the Ring (Zoe Birkett) who, Magic Mirror-like, tells him the only person pure of heart in the vicinity happens to be the title character, who also happens to be something of a thief.  Or, as he would put it, a redistributor of wealth.  Greco is great, melodramatic and pompous, lacing the bombast with a wry sense of humour.  Birkett is fantastic, with a chirpy Northern charm and a singing voice to die for.  I’d be happy if the entire show morphed into a concert of hers, to be honest. Her ‘Defying Gravity’ while Aladdin soars on a magic carpet, is just wonderful.

In the title role, Ben Cajee is appealing but the characterisation is, ironically, wishy-washy.  Returning to the Grand for another go, this time to appear as Aladdin’s brother Wishee-Washee is the excellent Tam Ryan.  In fact, we have to wait for his first entrance to get the first joke of the night.  Also making a welcome return is Ian Adams as a long-suffering Widow Twankey.  Ryan and Adams, separately and together, are the comedic pulse of a production which is uneven in tone.

Instead of an emperor or sultan, Shangri-Fa is ruled by a twit of a bureaucrat, a bumbling Notary (Ian Billings) who is out to line his own pockets, believing billionaires to be better than the rest of us.  This change means his daughter, Jasmine (Sofie Anne) is denied her princess status, freeing her to share Aladdin’s social conscience.  It seems that pantomime is drawing lines in the sand this year.  Wealth should be for everyone and not just those at the top, Aladdin and Jasmine agree.  I welcome this refreshing change: panto has always been a popular art-form and has always satirised those in charge.  There seems to be a distinct move to speak up for the people this year.  Unfortunately, the Notary who has the power to say who may or may not get married, just fizzles out of the storyline and the thread is left unresolved.  Here is a character who needs to learn the error of his ways.  Also left hanging is Wishee-Washee’s attraction to Zoe Birkett.  It’s usual in panto for everyone to get a happy ending, but even Twankey doesn’t get a man.

There is much to enjoy, of course.  Duane Gooden’s big hearted (and big bellied) Genie, the hard-working ensemble of dancers, a slosh scene in the laundry… But for me, it doesn’t hang together as a coherent whole.

And there’s the rub.

☆ ☆ ☆ and a half

Bopping Beppe: Michael Greco making his di Marco as Abanazar (Photo: Alex Styles)