Audience participation isn’t really my thing. It’s more like the opposite of my thing. If I’d been personally addressed by Widow Twankey (Chris Dennis) at any point during the evening, I’d have needed a three-week holiday in order to recover from the trauma and this review would never have been filed. So Plummer Wood Productions should give due thanks to Sharon in the front row who bore the brunt of Dennis’s banter, and I would also like to acknowledge a personal debt of gratitude. Thanks Sharon.
Onwards. Aladdin at the Shaw Theatre is a good laugh – a big budget, all-singing, all-dancing panto, complete with flying carpet, tunes from Frozen and Dolly Parton, a troupe of under-12s and a routine that involved repeatedly flinging a bundle of toilet rolls into the audience. Most of the budget clearly went on costume and props, rather than on a mega-star turn’s salary, because this had (drumroll please) … Ben Richards. Richards is best known as Justin from The Bill, although his film credits, the programme informs me, include Chakara, Julie and the Cadillacs and Bring Me the Head of Mavis Davis. I have literally never heard of any of those films – but that’s OK! Because Richards, as the evil sorcerer Abanazar, is actually really good, doing the kind of villainous evil available only to actors with professional dance training. His creepy waving fingers reminded me a bit of Robert Helpmann as the Childcatcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, which is pretty much the highest compliment it’s possible to pay to anyone attempting to terrify young children.
The show’s second biggest celebrity is Dennis, who reached the semi-final of Britain’s Got Talent as the singing drag act La Voix. He’s also totally worth it, camp as every dame should be, but demonstrating a cutting improvisational wit when he chats with members of the audience. As Wishee Washee, Aladdin’s brother and the audience’s main guide through the show, Paul Laurence-Thomas offers similarly sharp and self-aware asides without ruining the atmosphere of warm family entertainment.
The story is roughly the story we all know. It differs from the Disney version in that it is set in Peking (slightly bizarrely), and Aladdin has a mother and brother – Widow Twankey, who runs a launderette, and the cheeky scamp Wishee Washee. The second half follows Widow Twankey, Wishee Washee and PC Pongo (Oliver Broad) into Egypt as they attempt to foil Abanazar’s dastardly plans and help Aladdin (Justin Thomas, great dancer but not quite charismatic enough) marry the Emperor of China’s daughter. It’s basically a series of excuses for song-and-dance numbers – Aladdin and the Genie of the Lamp (Matthew Wesley, great dancer but not quite sassy enough) sing Bruno Mars’s ‘Treasure’ in the magic cave – and tell elaborately awful jokes. Which is as it should be.
There are some great set pieces throughout, including a scene in which PC Pongo is accidentally spun through a mangle, shrunk in a washing machine and almost incinerated in a tumble dryer; a completely insane version of ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’; and a brilliantly funny send-up of traditional ballet by Wishee Washee and Widow Twankey. Patrick Stockbridge and Pete Pentreath provide musical accompaniment on keyboard and drums for all these scenes, sitting live onstage and having to endure relentless teasing from Dennis, and four ensemble cast members and dancers provide talented support in the big songs. With a running time of two-and-a-half hours, it’s really way too long for children, but Aladdin is a huge, happy production.
Aladdin plays at the Shaw Theatre until 3 January 2015. For tickets and more information, see the Shaw Theatre website.