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 Writer-director Will Brenton overcomes the outdated stereotypes by translating the action from Old Peking to ‘Shangri-Fa’, located somewhere in The Mystical East.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)