Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton
As audiences across the country brave the snow to get their fill of festive fun, Britain's best loved Dame, the veritable Biggins, dons his frocks once more as he celebrates over forty years of panto tomfoolery.
Previously seen in Plymouth in 2009, Jonathan Kiley's production of Aladdin takes up home at the Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton this season with a few cast changes and a new take on the narrative.
In the title role, Paul Zerdin plays a heroic, yet humorous Aladdin, and, along with his foamy friend Sam, constitutes both the Comic and Principal Boy of the piece. Zerdin is a talented ventriloquist, but his act appears shoe-horned into the production and hardly differs from his previous appearances in Robin Hood and Cinderella. Surely it is time for some new material?
As Twankey, Biggins delivers a dear old Widow, hoping for a Game Boy under the tree when Christmas finally comes around. Biggins has played the role many times before and, in an array of sparkly outfits, often falling above the knee, delivers his very particular brand of Dame to a warm Wolverhampton audience who particularly enjoy his homage to Ann Widdecombe.
In Kiley's version of the tale, the Spirit of the Ring is replaced by Scheherazade, the Enchantress of the 1001 Nights. As Scheherazade, Lora Munro never stops undulating and fulfils a benevolent agent role. There are clear advantages to such a character and Kiley's alternative spirit is an inspired amendment to the usual Slave role. Free from the constraints of a ring, the Enchantress can appear at any time in the narrative and help whomever she pleases as she battles the wicked Abanazar, played by James Barron.
Qdos have always championed 3D technology in their shows and this version of Aladdin boasts its very own 3D Genie. Whereas in previous productions lighting issues have meant that the illusion of depth is scuppered as actors' shadows are cast over the projected animation, this has been skilfully avoided by Adrian Barne's clever lighting design.
Audience members shriek as boulders fly out at them and particularly enjoy rubbing the lamp on Aladdin's behalf to summon the all-powerful Genie. The sequences by Amazing Interactives are well designed and enhance the scenes in question, thus creating a modern pantomime for the computer age.
Bright costumes and witty sets adorn the stage and the troupe of eight dancers is never without a smile as each move is executed with great skill and panache.
The show would, however, benefit from some streamlining as in certain places it appears rather plodding. Nothing is made of an audience member's shirt in Twankey's laundry and some musical numbers go on for far too long. One such number is Girls Aloud's 'The Promise' which, already highly repetitive in nature, receives many a reprise and starts to grate when heard over and over again.
Completing the line-up is Churchill the dog and as the ensemble sing out yet another rendition of 'Yes' from Dirty Dancing, one can't help but think that Churchill ought to join in with his own famous catch-phrase.
Joining in is a key delight of the Wolverhampton panto and where else could you shout out, at the top of your voice, "Don't touch the prawn balls, leave the prawn balls alone" to Biggins dressed as a Chinese Widow? Looking after Twankey's prawn balls is worth the ticket price alone and demonstrates that, although a friendly Dame, Biggins still has that naughty twinkle in his eye for the adults in the audience.
Playing until 30th January 2011
Reviewer: Simon Sladen