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THE PANTOMIME WITH A TWIST AND SHOUT

Aladdin - The pantomime with a twist and shout

A review by Chad Armitstead for EXTRA! EXTRA! - 2009


Who needs Pam Anderson when you have talent?  The Shaw Theatre’s panto runs rings around standard London seasonal fare, then slides on its knees across the stage, punishing a guitar.


Aladdin may tick all the panto boxes, but its cast and creatives are thinking anywhere but inside them.  There are plenty of the “he’s behind you!” and drag gags that leave small vocal cords hoarse.  But the Shaw Theatre’s rock and roll twist (and shout) on the pantomime formula has kids in their fifties on their feet clapping along and grinning like Louis Walsh at a Jedward concert.


Told in the pyro-technicolor of panto, the rock-fuelled show follows the story of Aladdin, his mother Widow Twankey, and his, er, challenged brother Wishee Washee.  Aladdin, of course, falls in love with Princess Baldroubadour.  Meanwhile, Abanazar (booo! ssss!) needs a pure young heart to retrieve the mystical lamp and has designs of his own on the princess.  Duping the boy into helping him, Abanazar uses Aladdin then betrays him.  With the princess, the lamp and its wish-granting genie at stake, Aladdin must face the evil wizard in a final showdown.


Oliver Seymour-Marsh gives a better-than-X-Factor performance as Aladdin, his pop charm and charisma reaching its apex in a climactic rendition of “Magic Carpet Ride” atop an actual, if a bit psychedelic, flying carpet (a clever trick of David Muir’s lighting design).


Playing opposite the hero, Tara Nelson is the spectacularly adorable Princess Baldroubadour.  Nelson’s powerfully sweet voice makes the pair’s duet “I’m a Believer” undeniably endearing.


But as in all panto, booing the villains and laughing at the idiots often proves much more fun than cheering the heroes.  And there’s no shortage of villains and idiots surrounding these leads.


Graham Kent’s drag Widow Twankey is as unapologetically thick as she is unabashedly entertaining.  His deviously ingenious wardrobe crowns the achievement of Imagine Theatre’s costume design team, whose perverse inventions include a dress made from a bowl of noodles.


The entire cast is a fantastic walking spectacle—something akin to an ‘80’s workout video and Barney the dinosaur in a fabulous head-on collision.


Bill Geraghty’s endlessly pleased-with-himself Abanazar laps up ‘boos’ as if the taunts are fortifying nectar of the gods, sending the children wild with delight and screaming in redoubled earnest.


Chris Coxon’s ne’er-do-well Wishee Washee makes Kent’s Widow Twankey look like a genius.  Coxon plays the simpleton with the signature zeal of ignorance, charming children and adults alike, while taking ukulele, bass and dance duties in his stride.


If it’s James Brown in a bottle you’re looking for, then you’ve rubbed the right lamp.  Adebayo Bolaji radiates an exuberant Michael Jackson-meets-Wayne Brady mojo as the Genie, also managing to pay momentary homage to Robin Williams.


Susannah Van Den Berg’s commanding voice and presence as So Shi give a pin-sharp counterpoint to the waifish Wishee, who’s smitten with her.


It’s only out of respect for the rest of the cast’s electric performances that I don’t proclaim comedienne Jess Robinson official thief of the show.  She plays keyboards and drums, the airy Spirit of the Ring and the delightfully ridiculous Emperor and Empress.  But it’s her prowess as an impressionist that caps the show.


Near the end of the evening, Robinson and Coxon perform an Olympic feat of Christmas comedy, complete with Coxon on ukulele and a riotous litany of pop star impressions courtesy of Robinson.


The entire cast is characterised by astonishing versatility.  They all play their own instruments, from trumpet to tambourine.  Most, if not all of them play more than one instrument as well as multiple characters.  Even the ASM (Katie Pritchard) wears many hats, including a furry one when she dons a costume for some stagehand hijinks.


My only temptation to meddle with the show was an urge to knock on the sound booth door and ask the board operator to turn up the vocals in nearly every mix—it’s a shame to let any of the fantastic voices take a back seat to the instruments.


The show’s inventive, apropos use of songs ensures the rock and roll twist never distracts.  From Abanazar singing “Bad” to Aladdin’s “Magic Carpet Ride,” Kevin Oliver Jones (Musical Supervisor and Arrangements) makes the familiar songs feel like they were written for the show.


By the time the end of the story arrives and the show devolves into a Shrek-esque rock celebration coda—to the tune of “Celebration” of course—director Guy James has the audience hypnotised and it’s clear no one plans on leaving anytime soon.


The writers (Iain Lauchlan and Will Brenton) get the mix of groan-worthy gags and up-to-the-second topical humour exactly right, never neglecting one age group for another.


From the jokes to the music, Aladdin fires on all cylinders.  If it’s your first panto or your hundred and first, by the time you walk out of the Shaw Theatre, you should check your pulse if you don’t feel like you’re five years old at 4:30 am on Christmas morning, about to wake your parents.