New version by Bille Brown directed by Sean Mathias
Old Vic

"It's behind you!"
"Oh no it isn't"
"Oh yes it is!"

Remembering this theatre staged Edmund Kean as Richard III, Othello, Macbeth and Lear in the 1830s and Emma Cons Music Hall in the 1880s, what better arena for today's theatrical knight to play Dame Widow Twankey in pantomime?

Sir Ian McKellen is in his second season as the Old Vic's widow and the full houses for the opening performances show just why.

New faces in this year's company include Frances Barber as a worry-prone Master Dim Sum and another old Shakespearian, Roger Allam, resumes his role as Abanazar. Other newcomers are Matthew Wolfenden and Andrew Spillett as the acrobatic policemen Hanky and Panky. If ever there was a flying squad this is it. The pair are continuously airborne and rarely seen with either foot on the floor.

In the title role is the handsome young charmer Neil McDermott. His versatility with movement and song heralds a bright career and he blends well with Kate Gillespie, as shapely Princess.

But of course, this is Widow Twankey's show and Ian McKellen packs us in to delight us all with his Wigan whimsy. His costumes and wigs understandably are feasts in themselves, thanks in no small measure to Tim Gradwell. Clearly if a dame is wanted we should look no further than this classical Knight.

I have seen McKellen in classical Greek in Liverpool, Ibsen at the National and Strindberg in the West End. Excellent as he always is, he is in his element at the Old Vic, delighting adults and children alike with an altogether thrilling performance.

Nothing is sacred. From David Cameron and Eurostar to Peter Hall and Shakespeare, not to mention the Old Vic and even artistic director Kevin Spacey himself. All get the mischievous McKellen touch. But then in such a famous theatre a famous actor can please himself as well as the audience.

There are some delightful cameos too, from the likes of Paul Grunert as the Emperor and Tee Jaye as a colourful, svelte Genie.

Kevin Amos directs the orchestra with aplomb, embracing magical numbers including "Pantomime" and "There's Life in the Old Vic yet". Indeed there is and in the old hams too!

"Aladdin" continues at the Old Vic until 22 January.

©Peter Lathan 2005

Reviewer: Kevin Catchpole

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