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Aladdin
Old Vic Theatre, Winter 2004-2005; revived 2005-2006 with some cast changes

(Reviewed 2004)

Aladdin is a thoroughly enjoyable Christmas Panto, with the added bonus of watching an eminent Shakespearean slumming and enjoying himself immensely.

(Pause to explain for the non-British: The Christmas Pantomime is not a mime show, but a musical comedy built loosely on a fairy tale or Arabian Nights plot, with interpolated pop songs, guest stars - usually from TV soaps - and a whole collection of traditions and rituals that are part of the fun. At least one male role is played by an actress and one comic female role by a man. There's lots of audience interaction - 'Behind you! Behind you!' and the like - and a mix of slapstick for the kiddies and over-their-heads wordplay for the adults.)

Just about every British theatre outside London has a panto in December and January - like the ballet companies' Nutcrackers, they're money-spinners - and you can gauge the importance of a town by how far down the B-list of TV names it has to go for its stars.  A bit unusually, there are two in the West End this year - see our review of Snow White for the other.

The script by Bille Brown for the Old Vic's Aladdin follows the panto tradition with some variations. For some reason, Aladdin is always imagined as living in China, son of the Widow Twankey who, for reasons lost in the mists of tradition, runs a laundry. Aladdin loves the princess, but is too poor to woo her. Enter the villain ('Hiss! Boo!'), the Arabian (don't ask) magician Abbanazar, who needs Aladdin to help him find the magic lamp and rule the world. Aladdin gets the lamp, the genie, riches, the girl, then loses them to the baddie, then gets them back - you get the idea.

Traditionally, the romantic leads are rather bland, and the fun is in the comic figures around them, and the big attraction of this production is that the Widow Twankey is played by Sir Ian McKellen in full drag, ten changes of costume, each more outlandish than the one before.

And McKellen has a ball, mugging and swanning about like mad, milking every hoary joke for all it's worth. One original twist in this script has the Widow a frustrated diva, giving McKellen the chance to do a wicked Marlene Dietrich take-off near show's end.

Along the way, hoary old jokes (' Please, I appeal to you.' - 'No you don't.') sit comfortably side by side with Bush, Blair and Saddam gags and theatrical in-jokes - when Aladdin triumphs, his mother is elevated to Dame Twankey, outranking (she is quick to remind us) Judi and Maggie.

But this is not a one-man show. Maureen Lipman, playing Aladdin's male buddy, provides much of the comic energy and amiable audience rapport; and Roger Allam, no mean Shakespearean himself, clearly revels in twirling his moustachios and drawing our hisses as Abbanazar

In one of the traditional set pieces Owen Sharpe and Joanna Page play paperhangers trying to decorate a room, delighting the kids with their messy slapstick while adults recognise a loving hommage to Laurel and Hardy.

Another break with tradition is an original score of pleasant songs by Gareth Valentine, though a hat is tipped to the genre's usual magpie nature by including one interpolated song by Elton John.

Go, especially if you have never seen a panto before. Follow the lead of the others in the audience in the ritual interchanges and sing-along. With one eye watch the fun all the kids are having. And watch the Shakespearean knight and Middle Earth sorcerer having as much fun as they - and you.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Aladdin - Old Vic 2004