Simonside Community Centre, Westerhope, Newcastle
I am sometimes asked why, when I do my annual BTG listing of what I think is the “Best of”, I do not do a ‘Best Panto’ category. It’s quite simple really; it’s because there are so many different (very different) kinds of panto that it’s impossible to compare them. How do you compare Sunderland Empire’s Peter Pan, with its well-known stars, expensive sets and hugely expensive flying rig, with this Aladdin in a community centre in an outer suburb of Newcastle, featuring a set which consists of sparkly curtains and projected coloured drawings of various scenes?
You can’t, obviously.
But let me tell you about Aladdin. I saw it on a Thursday afternoon and, apart from a few adults who didn’t even take up the full back row, the audience consisted almost entirely of primary school children, from Reception to Year 6, and their teachers. One school—all the staff and all the children—was there in its entirety.
Sitting in front of me were the girls of Year 6, super-cool and grown-up. Not for them the shouting, cheering, booing and hissing of their fellows. No way! They sat looking superciliously down on the younger kids (and the boys of their own age—so immature!) until one of their favourite songs came along and suddenly they were singing along, clapping with arms in the air, swaying from side to side. All pretence of ultra-cool gone, from then on they were totally involved in shouting and screaming, booing and hissing—the lot! And they were loving it!
Then they noticed the coloured gobos in the intelligent lights sweeping across the ceiling and the walls and soon were oo-ing and ah-ing and following them with their eyes in utter fascination. They were held!
What held them was not seeing people “off the tele” on the stage; it wasn’t huge and impressive sets and it certainly wasn’t expensive special effects. No, it was a group of performers in bright, cheerful, exciting costumes, who understand what panto is all about, who are finely tuned to the kids’ wavelength and who know how to make contact with them and draw them into the fairy-tale fun world they are creating.
The story is the traditional Aladdin tale and it’s told in the traditional way with the traditional characters from Widow Twankey the Dame to Abanazar the Villain. There’s a slosh scene and a take-off, the latter, as always, bringing the children to a massive peak of excitement (and noise; especially noise). There are songs which the kids know and love—six pantos and six "Baby Sharks"; I don’t think I can take any more!—but not too many. There’s romance, of course, but not too much because that’s a turn-off, being soppy grown-up stuff. There’s slapstick and naughty jokes—I rather think the kids didn’t really understand what Wishee Washee meant when he said he was pooped after he’d been jogging. And as for Widow Twankey wiping her snotty nose on her arms… Well! Yuck!
And what of the cast? There’s Luke Maddison as our hero, Aladdin, the archetypal nice lad whom some of the older girls really took a shine to. Then there’s his dafty brother Wishee Washee, played by Craig Richardson (who also co-directed with writer Dale Meeks). He’s everything the panto Comic ought to be, gormless but nice, and hilarious with it. Their mam, of course, is Widow Twankey, played by Steven Charles Stobbs. He is of the “bloke in a frock” school of Dames, the sort which most appeals to kids—camp doesn’t do it for them.
Lucy Marie Curry is Princess Jade Blossom, daughter of the Empress of China. Good-looking, a good singer and mover, and with a great sense of fun, she makes a lovely Principal Girl. Jayne Mackenzie plays The Genie of the Lamp and one of the Policemen, while the other Policeman and Slave of the Ring is Janine Leigh, both swapping smoothly between the glamour of the supernaturals and the comedy coppers. And I have to admit that even this eagle-eyed critic didn’t notice they were both. I was convinced there were four girls, not two.
Our deep-dyed villain, Abanazar, is a suitably evil Michael Geddes (who also designed the set) and the cast is completed by the dancing girls (and the mini-genies) of the CM Dance Academy, choreographed by Chantal McCartney.
It’s a show aimed at schools and most of the audiences have been primary children. It’s pitched perfectly for them but yes, there is also enough for the adults, jokes and comments which pass by the children unregarded. One just hopes that the kids don’t, as suggested by Wishee Washee at one point, ask their teacher to explain “that” on the bus back to school!
My last panto of the 2018 season and a good ‘un to go out on!