Regent Theatre, Stoke-on-Trent
For six consecutive seasons, Jonathan Wilkes was the Regent pantomime. The mastermind behind it all, he ensured each and every production was well and truly Stokified for his loyal audience whilst also ensuring that the stars of tomorrow had a chance to perform alongside him through his Stoke’s Top Talent competition. Celebrity cameos, sparkling sets and strong pantomime performers graced the stage, but like all good things, they must come to an end and sadly these times are now gone.
It is never easy to step into the shoes of a panto great. This year Wilkes appears for First Family Entertainment in Aylesbury and has been replaced by fellow cheeky chappy Joe Swash. Originally billed as the production’s “leading man”, Swash has been relegated to the role of Wishee Washee and is severely underused as the production’s headliner. The quality of a good production is often in its casting and with the stage not awash with Swash, many audience members will sadly be disappointed. Swash has been scaling the celebrity ladder in recent years, but aside from a momentary Bush Tucker Trial at Aladdin’s newly built palace and some talk of Wishee having been in the jungle, his career is hardly alluded to. Any performer from EastEnders is a gift for scriptwriters, yet no reference is made and it seems rather absurd that producers Pelé Productions has not refocused Aladdin’s narrative to centre on his brother.
Pelé Productions is new to the Regent Theatre having been awarded the contract to produce the annual pantomime after First Family Entertainment’s (FFE) string of successful shows with Wilkes. Just why FFE ceased producing at the Ambassador Theatre Group (ATG) venue when it is a wholly-owned ATG subsidiary company, no-one seems to know, but some of FFE’s costumes and sets are being used in this production, which at least add a little sparkle to a panto without any fizz.
Something completely inexcusable in a venue with a capacity of 1,600 is the absence of live music. Pantomime thrives off an electric atmosphere, but when the sound constantly comes from a CD player an atmospheric void is created in an auditorium so vast. Widow Twankey’s entrance to ‘Born This Way’ is lip-synched over Lady Gaga’s vocals and the ensemble’s voices sound completely computerised due to their pre-recorded nature. If First Family Entertainment could deliver a band, stunning scenery, more than one headliner and goodiebags for the Songsheet, then why can’t Pelé Productions? In times such as this when purse strings are tight, audiences are constantly assessing what they can get for their money.
Janice Connolly does her best to inject some warmth into this tepid production as a localised Spirit of the Ring, but her “Hello me ducks” only reminds the audience of Wilkes’ absence. Leon Tagoe’s Aladdin demonstrates the perils of using unskilled pantomime performers and the directorial decision to have American Adam Weber speak in a faux Chinese accent as Copper Pong is dangerously outdated, even if the production does try to justify it with a couple of lines of dialogue.
They say you should be careful what you wish for and at the Regents Theatre the old adage ‘you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone’ springs to mind. Luckily for the mums and dads in the audience, they won’t have to wait too long to get their fix of Wilkes as he returns to the Regent Theatre in January with his adult show Panto’s on Strike.
‘Aladdin’ plays at the Regents Theatre, Stoke-on-Trent until 15th January 2012.
Reviewer: Simon Sladen