Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

Aladdin

Joanna Read and Stuart Thomas
Watford Palace Theatre
(2010)

Aladdin production photo

With a glorious psychedelic frontcloth, this Aladdin is full of vim and verve and goes at a relentless pace, faster than any flying carpet, or surfboard for that matter.

Aladdin is one of the nation's favourite pantomimes and Joanna Read and Stuart Thomas have done a wonderful job in making their tale feel fresh and new. The Aladdin of their story is an inspired inventor and Abanazar not a wicked magician, but something much worse - a banker.

Extremely strong on plot, the Watford Palace panto lacks comic capers. Its set pieces, such as the mangle sequence and "It's Behind You" scene, become incorporated into the musical numbers and get lost in amongst all the singing and dancing. Such a directorial approach ensures that the pantomime keeps running at break-neck speed, but the audience is deprived of the opportunity to indulge in the comedy as it is gone in an instant and feels rushed. The cast need to be able to wring such pieces out for all they're worth, but when executed over a couple of bars of music this is an impossible task even for the best of actors.

Almost as impossible is the song sheet, which seems only to be there for tradition's sake. There's barely time to get to grips with the lyrics and moves before it's goodbye to those children quickly ushered onstage and hello to the finale.

With Abanazar being a banker providing almost the only innuendo, the script is also short of punning and proper groans and giggles. Thank goodness for Bethan Mary-James and Adam Ewan as Constables Ping and Pong. Mary-James and Ewan are both great comic actors who also double up as the Spirit of the Ring and Genie of the Lamp; they clearly know how to work the text they're given.

Ewan's surfer dude Genie is as "totally awesome" as his catchphrase suggests and his watery mode of transport is a welcome deviation to the usual flying carpet. However something doesn't quite add up when the Genie receives his freedom. All it takes is for the audience to repeat some magic words and he is free, even though Abanazar is the Genie's master at the time and has ordered him to destroy Aladdin, Wishy Washy, Princess Jasmine and the Emperor.

It is a shame that it takes until half way through the second act for Aladdin to really get going with some adorably cute penguins who steal the show, followed by the Bolero on roller-skates. Mirroring the wintery wonderland outside, Abanazar's icy hideout provides yet another alternative to the more traditional version of the tale, but it does prove problematic seeing as the Princess and Abanazar survive the chill in their outfits suitable for a perspiringly hot Peking, when the others require coats, gloves and scarves.

One of the production's main problems at present is that the actors seem uncomfortable with audience participation and a quick look at their biographies in the programme provides some answers as to why this may be: virtually all of the cast are panto virgins. However, we are less than a week into the run and it takes time for performers to settle in and find their panto feet.

The cast sing and dance their musical numbers with great gusto and at present Aladdin resembles more a well oiled musical than a panto full of actor/audience banter. The cast need to allow themselves the luxury of breaking away from the script when the time is right, whilst encouraging the audience's interaction at any given opportunity. More care needs to be taken on establishing a shared community as simply shouting "ni hao"' each time a character enters cannot do this alone.

The Palace's panto shows great promise and with a bit more tomfoolery, ad-libbing and slapstick, this slick and sparkly Aladdin could really take off.

Playing until 1st January 2011

Reviewer: Simon Sladen