Simon Barnard & Guy Pascall
Blue Genie Entertainment
The Playhouse, Whitley Bay
Having had some considerable experience in marketing myself, I am somewhat sceptical of subjective claims which are made unattributably. So, when I noticed that the publicity material announces that this production of Aladdin is the ‘North East’s Best Value Panto!’, I mentally threw down the gauntlet and challenged them to convince me of as much.
Certainly, with tickets for parties of schoolchildren priced at only £7 per head, they can claim to be the cheapest (a quick check on the internet confirmed that). But, more importantly, does the production offer high standards all-round? Does it tick every box on the panto check-list? The answer, in this reviewer’s opinion, is an emphatic ‘YES’.
Indeed, this production boasts a cast in which there really isn’t a weak link. Jassa Ahluwalia (from Disney’s Art Attack) plays the title role and his portrayal of Aladdin is all fresh-faced boyish good looks and cheeky charm. Kirsty Swain (from BBC’s So You Think You Can Dance?) compliments Ahluwalia nicely as Princess Jasmine and they particularly shine in the musical numbers.
For the second year in succession, local lad Steve Walls returns to the Playhouse panto in the role of principal comic. Having excelled as Muddles in last year’s production of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, this year he takes the role of Wishee Washee and ups his game yet again. It is with total expertise that he establishes a rapport with the children in the audience, who are all thrilled to be part of his ‘gang’, yet his near-the-knuckle gags (which go straight over the kids’ heads) make him a firm favourite with the adults, too. Only a comic of the highest calibre is capable of achieving such a feat.
Paul Harris proves there really is ‘nothing like a dame’ with his perfect portrayal of Widow Twankey. Clearly a bloke in a dress caricaturing a female—which is the precise point of the Dame—he is also believable enough as a woman to allow the audience to suspend their disbelief and accept him / her as mother of Aladdin and Wishee Washee. Personally, I don’t go in for this new breed of drag queen style dame—give me a proper, good, old-fashioned dame every time, in terms of sheer comedy and entertainment, and I’m in panto heaven.
Of course, every good panto also needs a good villain and Simon Barnard provides plenty of opportunities to hiss and boo in the role of Abanazar. Jimmy Burton-Iles also puts in an energetic performance as a Genie with plenty of personality, whilst supporting roles are played by Christina Kerridge (Slave of the Ring), Darren Sawdon (PC Ping Pong) and Leigh Steedman (The Emperor), some of whom also double-up as professional dancers.
The production is structured well and adheres faithfully to the story. Simon Barnard and Guy Pascall’s script, as it should be, is peppered with those well-worn jokes that are resurrected from retirement each festive season but never fail to make us laugh—no matter how many times we hear them. There’s also a slosh scene, a ‘take off’ scene (in which the characters are scared off, individually, by a ghost), sight-gags and a real flying carpet. The musical numbers are all re-workings or re-wordings of current or recent pop songs, giving a contemporary feel, and Alison Hefferon’s choreography suits them well. The sets and scenery are well-designed, too, and help bring a touch of the Far East to the North East.
It is difficult to retain the attention of some youngsters for the entire duration of a pantomime, yet this production of Aladdin seemed, for the most part, to do just that. Undoubtedly, this is because it is a fast-paced, gag-filled show which is full of family fun.
In the current economic climate, money is scarce and families may only be able to see one pantomime all season, therefore they need to know that their hard-earned money is going to be well spent and the price of the tickets will be worth it. This panto most certainly is!
Runs until the 2nd of January 2012
Reviewer: Steve Burbridge