“Well, wasn’t that Christmassy!”
The Hackney Empire currently has the reputation of the must-see pantomime in London but the Lyric Hammersmith has been crafting its own little niche in the market and I’d happily wager that with Aladdin this year they have truly come up with the goods and I doubt that this panto will be bettered this year. Co-writers Steve Marmion, Joel Horwood and Morgan Lloyd Malcolm, returning from last year’s Dick Whittington along with much of the same crew and cast, continue to reinvigorate the form by working in a fresh contemporary vibe whilst never losing sight of what makes a panto work. There’s nothing old-fashioned about this trip to Ha-Maa-Smiitt (say it with an East Asian accent…) where the dastardly Abanazar is plotting to take over the kingdom, whilst unassuming, sweet-nicking Aladdin daydreams of a better life with the Princess Karen until he is thrust into action to save the day.
The script is punchy with a few neat topical references and absolutely chock-ablock with jokes which work on all levels (I was relieved to see the kids in front us perplexed as to why we were laughing so much as Widow Twanky departed on a washing machine) I was laughing out loud throughout the entire show, especially with the physical humour. But it is also a visual treat: Tom Scutt’s costume and set design is sunny and bright, Mark Smith has come up with some interesting choreography and with the magic carpet sequence, there is pure awe-inspiring theatrical magic at work. It would be unfair to say more about it but rest assured it is worth the ticket price alone.
One of the major strengths of this creative team is their understanding of how to make each element of the show feel as vital as the other and this is never more evident than in the use of music. The way in which the songs – many of them recent chart hits – have been rewritten makes them feel an integral part of the production. Sometimes it is only a little lyrical tweaking, working in references to Hammersmith for example; sometimes it is a wholesale change, as in the genius version of Mr Boombastic that is Mr Abanazar or the way in which U Can’t Touch This is delivered, but it is always clever and essential – just look at how the contrasting viewpoints of Price Tag and Billionaire are counterpointed as Princess Karen and Aladdin sing about their respective dreams. (Oddly enough though, at least two of the songs in here were included in the Hackney Empire’s Cinderella as well.)
The returning cast members are obviously relishing being back in each other’s company: Steven Webb’s appealing Wishy-Washy – Aladdin’s brother but here a blue monkey, what else – is a ball of refreshing energy who can pull off a nifty dance routine or 3, Simon Kunz is a delightful villain as Abanazar and Shaun Prendergast pulls off another exceptional dame as Widow Twanky, rattling out joke after joke with warmth and affection – it’s a delight to watch them. Among the others, Nigel Betts is hilarious as the animal-loving Emperor and the wise Genie, Sophia Nomvete shows off an incredible voice and bags of character as the Spirit of the Ring and Dominique Moore’s Princess Karen is sweetly done. And there’s a palpable sense of camaraderie amongst the whole group that adds a lovely frisson of excitement as one is (as are the cast I imagine) never quite sure where the next joke is going to come from.
Not everything works quite as perfectly. Hammed Animashaun’s Aladdin is so laidback as to be on the verge of disinterest, I felt he could have done much more to try and connect with the audience. He is not helped by being lumbered with a call and response bit that fell flat for being frankly rather unintelligible no matter how many times we did it, but Animashaun showed little interest in trying to whip up enthusiasm for it. Webb’s Wishy Washy also has an overly complicated response to try and help him remember his name but he does a lot more to work with the audience impressively.
These are but minor quibbles though, for this is a brilliant pantomime that can and should be enjoyed by the entire family. The Lyric have hit on a winning formula that really does feel like the ideal recipe for a 21st century pantomime. Combined with a collection of cast and creatives who are sparking off each other in imaginative and dazzling ways, the story has been cleverly reoriented to give it a lovely message that manages to still feel relevant to a modern audience. If you are only going to see one pantomime this festive season, then I wholeheartedly recommend this Aladdin.