First Family Entertainment
Opera House, Manchester
Aladdin in Arabic means nobility of the faith. The story of that name known to theatregoers has its origins in the legendary tales of the Arabian Nights. However it is likely to have been a later addition. The first performance as a pantomime was in the late 18th Century in London.
Aladdin is, however, alive and well and living in the Opera House in Manchester until the beginning of January. First Family has once again managed to blend the traditional tale with a modern twist and many local references. The characters are all well drawn and there are no weak links amongst the principals. The pace and energy do not flag and this is admirable as it is a lengthy production at almost three hours.
Aladdin lives in Beijing with his mother the Widow Twankey and his brother the ne'er-do-well Wishee Washee. He gets caught up in a scheme set by the wizard Abanazar who wants him to retrieve a magic lamp from a cave. Things do not go according to plan and Aladdin becomes trapped in the cave but he has help from a genie of the ring and then the genie of the lamp. If you add in a sub-plot to do with the ups and downs of his attempt to court Jasmine the protected daughter of the King, that takes care of the story. However the pleasure of this production is not so much derived from what happens but the joy and élan with which it unfolds.
There are some splendid set piece routines, the funniest of which is the one at the start of Act two in the laundry run by Widow Twankey. The Widow and Wishee Washee are doing the laundry and the Widow's smalls become the centre of some rather vulgar and hugely comic attention which left the audience and this reviewer very much amused.
There were the "it's behind you" moments and plenty "oh no it isn't!" and "oh yes it is!". The routine with the children from the audience on the stage was also more skilfully realised than is sometimes the case. This was due to the splendid comic timing of Mike McClean as Wishey Washey. He gave the children funny voices in a very funny ventriloquist act.
Gray O Brien is perhaps best known as Coronation Street baddie Tony. His Abanazar was just the right blend of nastiness and camp silliness with many jokes aimed to poke fun at his renown. This reviewer was happy to join in the booing and hissing which greeted his every entrance and was pleasantly surprised to hear a lovely singing voice in his two solo numbers.
Chris Fountain from television's Hollyoaks as Aladdin was an engaging presence whose energy was very infectious. He was also able to partner Eric Potts effectively and drew some laughs for his efforts. And full marks to him for being able to sing so well whilst he " flew " to Abanazar's palace in Egypt in Act Two. This was a memorable stage effect.
Eloise Irving is a very experienced singer and former BBC Radio 2 Choirgirl of the year. She was suitably sweet as Princess Jasmine without cloying and had the most pleasant singing voice in the show.
The multitalented Eric Potts wrote and directed the show as well as playing the dame. His Widow Twankey was pitch perfect. He had a lovely blend of the vulgar and the coquettish and the costumes were breathtaking with much use of tassles, plumes and outrageous colour clashes. The comedy, though broad, was very engaging and he made a wonderful connection with the audience and lifted every scene in which he played.
Sue Devaney as the Genie of the Ring projected a scatty warmth and the audience clearly took her to their hearts. And Joe Speare as the Genie of the Lamp had the appropriate stage presence and physique to match. Nick Newbould's Chinese Policeman owed a lot to the Keystone Cops of the silent era with much sublime physical comedy including being put through the mangle in Act two. Keith Ladd was an effectively pompous King Of China who machinated to marry off his daughter to the richest bidder.
Songs ranged from Will Young's hit "Leave right now" through to Queen's "I want it all" and they cleverly reflected the key moments of the action. The production ended with a rollicking version of the Status Quo number "Rocking all over the world" which had much of the audience standing up to join in.
The only traditional element which was missing was a community sing-song but this did not detract one jot from the fun of the evening. The live music was well played and directed by Steve Power if however a little loud at times.
Some of the oldest chestnuts were on offer and this reviewer's favourite one was the interchange between the King and the Widow where he says to her that she has something no other woman has. This lead to Eric Potts giving an aside to the audience where he said, "Ain't that the truth?"
The dancing was well choreographed by Ijy de Luca and effectively executed by the chorus. There was much use of faux Egyptian movements and suitably athletic strutting and stomping. The main design feature of the costumes was the theme of kimonos. These were beautifully rendered and sometimes were in patchwork style and later in more glamorous versions. There was a stunning opening to the finale which saw the juveniles in their blue and silver kimonos moving down the steps in unison.
The mix of the childish and the very adult was just right and the buzz amongst the leaving audience members was a fitting tribute to a splendid night's entertainment.
Reviewer: Andrew Edwards