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 Writer-director Will Brenton overcomes the outdated stereotypes by translating the action from Old Peking to ‘Shangri-Fa’, located somewhere in The Mystical East.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)
Leave a comment | tags: Aladdin, Ben Cajee, Duane Gooden, Grand Theatre, Ian Adams, Ian Billings, Michael Greco, pantomime, review, Sofie Anne, Tam Ryan, Will Brenton, Wolverhampton, Zoe Birkett | posted in pantomime, Review, Theatre Review
ROCK OF AGES
The Alexandra, Birmingham, Tuesday 13th November, 2018
As ever, I approach this jukebox musical with trepidation. Will it be the same sort of flimsy plot with old songs shoehorned in just for the sake of it? Will I sit there for two hours asking myself what’s the point?
All my fears were allayed within minutes. It turns out Rock of Ages is an absolute beaut of a show, hugely enjoyable from start to finish. Set in mid-to-late 1980s on L.A.’s Sunset Strip, this is a world of big hair and ripped jeans, where ‘rock’ is a verb and middle fingers are firmly jabbed upwards. At no point are we invited to take any of it seriously. The fourth wall is well and truly demolished and the script is peppered with theatrical gags, celebrating the artifice of the enterprise.
Our narrator is Lonny, performed by an irresistibly likeable Lucas Rush, camp, crass and hilarious. Lonny works as a ‘sound guy’ in the Bourbon Room, a club owned by ageing rocker Dennis (an unrecognisable Kevin ‘Curly Watts’ Kennedy). Rush and Kennedy make an excellent pairing: their rendition of I Can’t Fight This Feeling is a comic highlight of a show that has many such moments.
Leading man Drew, a wannabe rocker, is played by Luke Walsh, whose voice is absolutely searing. The only thing missing is a good head of big hair for him to bang when the need arises. Leading lady Sherrie, a wannabe actor who has a harder time of it than Drew (but this reflects the sexual politics of the era, I suppose) is played by Danielle Hope, combining strength and vulnerability. Her voice has Pat Benatar qualities and her rendition of More Than Words gives shivers.
The course of Drew’s love doesn’t run smooth, of course, and he is disheartened when Sherrie, believing Drew isn’t interested, becomes entangled with rock superstar Stacee Jaxx – a toweringly funny portrayal from the mighty Sam Ferriday. His Jaxx is all ego and charisma; Ferriday is lithe and sinuous and hilarious in his physicality. His voice is superb. I find myself falling for this long-haired, white-suited monster.
Vas Constanti and Andrew Carthy bring broad comedy as a pair of German property developers, the villains of the piece who make ‘Allo Allo’ seem subtle. Carthy also proves himself a nifty mover in some surprising dance moments. Rhiannon Chesterman is consistently bonkers as activist Regina, while the phenomenal Zoe Birkett is a strong contender for the show’s vocal crown as stripclub-owner Justice.
The book, by Chris D’Arienzo, keeps the jokes flowing along with a plethora of 80s soft rock hits, and I am surprised whenever, among the knockabout fun, moments of beauty arise: Every Rose Has Its Thorn stirs the blood. The music is provided by a brilliant onstage band under the aegis of musical director Barney Ashworth, and there is energetic pastiche choreography by Nick Wilson and Ryan-Lee Seager (who also direct) and of course we are all up on our feet by the end – how could you not be? How could you not adore this crazy cavalcade? You must be made of rock.
I leave the theatre exhilarated – and relieved they didn’t kill the mood with the title song!
Hair today: Lucas Rush as Lonny
Leave a comment | tags: Andrew Carthy, Barney Ashworth, Birmingham, Chris D'Arienzo, Danielle Hope, Kevin Kennedy, Lucas Rush, Luke Walsh, Nick Winston, review, Rhiannon Chesterman, Rock of Ages, Ryan-Lee Seagar, Sam Ferriday, The Alexandra Theatre, Vas Constanti, Zoe Birkett | posted in Review, Theatre Review