Greetings, gentle reader, and may I be among (probably) the last to wish you a Happy New Year. Now that the chocs are eaten and the decs are down (mine aren’t but will be soon) it’s that time of year when I have to play catch-up reviewer of all the shows we saw around the Christmas period, some of which have now closed, so there’s nothing I can say that might convince you to see them or otherwise – because it’s too late!
One such production was this year’s Qdos Entertainment pantomime at the Royal and Derngate, Aladdin, with its happy promotional poster of Paul Nicholas, Jaymi Hensley and Sheila Ferguson all smiling cheerily and Kev Orkian looking defiantly cheeky. Already you know it’s going to be everything you could wish for in a panto. Gosh, it even says that on the front cover of the programme. Last year we didn’t see the Royal and Derngate’s Jack and the Beanstalk because the promotional photo showed Simon Webbe looking grumpy, and my brain got the message this won’t be fun. There’s a lot of competition for the panto pound, and the promo has got to be right to get the audience behind it. That wasn’t; but this was. Anyway, it had Sheila Ferguson in it, so of course I was going to see it.
The theatre had a great vibe of happy expectation and there’s no doubt the whole audience had a great time. The sets were lively, colourful and fun, with a good mix of cartoony images as well as the more sophisticated special effects that panto audiences now expect. Do you wave at Aladdin as he rides his magic carpet out into the audience? Of course you do. Phil Dennis’ compact little band, tucked away in one of the side boxes, gave us more oomph than only three guys had any right to, and Alan Burkitt’s enjoyable choreography had just about enough West End feel to it to make all the musical numbers go with a swing.
As always with a panto there were a couple of standard routines that brought the house down. I loved the tongue-twisting scene where Kev Orkian’s Wishee Washee had to act as a go-between relating the linguistic horrors of the short-sleeved shirt shortage between Darren Machin’s Widow Twankey and Paul Nicholas’ Abanazar. However, the best for me was when Wishee, realising that everyone else was frozen in time, repositioned the dancers, the Emperor, the Princess and Widow Twankey into contorted positions to make a funny effect by pushing the last one over. When Wishee asked the boys and girls whether or not he should kiss the defenceless Princess, nearly all of them shouted back NO! which made my go on my son! sound a bit pervy, so apologies if you were offended. Mr Orkian’s teasing the cast – especially dancer Serge and the precariously balancing Emperor Dom Hartley-Harris, was hilarious. One thing that really was noticeable – how they don’t waste time falling in love in Pantoland. Mr Harley-Harris had the hots for Widow Twankey quicker than a gulp of Peking Tea, and as for Zoe George’s Princess Jasmine consenting to be Jaymi Hensley’s Aladdin’s gf… well, all I can say is she must be a Union J fan.
It was unusual, but very rewarding, to see a panto that was sung so well. Mr Hensley and Ms George’s duets were both touching and powerful; but with leads Paul Nicholas and Sheila Ferguson you knew you were going to be in for a musical treat. With a few unsurprising Marigold Hotel references between them, they really lit up the stage. Mr Nicholas still has that charismatic twinkle in his eye even if you can barely see it for his turban. Anyone hoping for a reprise of Dancing with the Captain (just me then?) would have been disappointed, but vocally he’s still got it and puts real characterisation and mischief into his songs. Ms Ferguson is still as pitch perfect as ever, with terrific renditions of River Deep Mountain High and the Three Degrees’ own Year of Decision, with which she closed the first half. Having had the pleasure of interviewing her a few years ago for a Eurovision radio programme (and yes, I know, she never did Eurovision) she told me how much she hated that song. Sign of a real trouper then!
It was a perfect way of starting our Christmas week and everyone went home buzzing. A first-class production of an excellent panto!