Christmas is here and so is Pantomime, that inexplicable British invention of theatrical craziness - a craziness chockfull of cross-dressing barmy old battleaxes, dastardly villains, pretty princesses, and intrepid young heroes. Along with the regular clot of wacky characters, there is also the usual mix of slapstick comedy routines, silly sing-a-longs, and slightly naughty innuendoes and of course magic – the festive element that the children love most.
Ian McKellen, is a superb panto dame, his cheeks covered in rouge, hair in curlers and wearing the most garish outfits imaginable, one quickly realises from his cheerful demur that this is a role he has been longing for. He first appears dressed in what look likes a polyester multi-coloured dressing gown designed by Dame Edna on acid, only to appear in even more outlandish costumes as the show continues. My favourite was Britannia – complete with shield, trident, and little else! It is surprising to discover that McKellen has a lovely pair of legs that shapely fill a pair of fishnet stockings.
As cracking as Ian McKellen looks, his Widow Twankey delighted more because of the absurdity of watching one of our great classical actor’s camp it up in outrageous drag, than because of the usual panto madness. Despite his appearance I could not help but think that his Widow Twankey was aimed for the regular theatregoer rather than the usual panto crowd who often never acquaint a theatre other than at Christmas time. I laughed with the rest with the droll references to Sir Peter Hall, Dame Judy Dench, Trevor Nunn, and Fiona Shaw to name a few theatrical names referred to, reminding us this is no regular pantomime.
The panto starts promisingly for both children and adults alike, there are the usual improper remarks, that innocently pass over the heads of children, my favourite being Widow Twankey’s comment about her dead husband Saddam, “He assaulted me with his deadly weapon, and it took considerably less than 45 minutes” she gleefully complains. Then there is the political satire, mainly at the expense of Blunkett, as we watch Aladdin be fast tracked as he takes a trip on the magic blunkett (blanket).
As promising as the first moments of the show are, the adults are soon quickly forgotten as the humour becomes less embellished. For most of the show we are left with boos, and cries of “It’s behind you”, to fill in the laborious 2 hours 45mins. And this is the show’s main problem, it is simply too long to keep children’s attention, and too childish to keep adult’s entertained.
Joe McFadden’s Aladdin is engaging with a cheeky grin and boundless energy, but unable to ad-lib with the audience. There was an embarrassing moment, when the scenery for the treasure cave took longer then expected to unfold, in which a sheepish Aladdin sat in an awkward silence rather than interacting with the audience. A reminder, if one was needed, that Panto is an art form of it’s own that harps back to the old musical halls, where such glitches would quickly be incorporated into the act, rather than an unsettling silence. Cat Simmons, as the Princess is totally charmless, her one saving grace being that like Joe McFadden, she has a wonderful singing voice.
Maureen Lipman was quaintly pleasant as Dim Sum, if somewhat muted; yet she happily improvised when needed. She, along with Sam Kelly’s, delightfully dithering old Emperor, both appear comfortable with the pantomime genre, and their characters were obviously loved by the children.
Roger Allam (Abbanazar), whilst villainous in appearance and hams like a natural on stage, never creates an air of nastiness! This is no doubt the fault of Bille Brown’s script that leaves Allam with nothing more than his booming cankerous laughter and malicious stares, with which to generate the children’s dislike. What is needed, is a few innocent insults for Allam to hurl at the children that would work up their little passions so that they could take some personal delight in the villain’s downfall.
Enjoyable as it is to watch McKellen as widow Twankey, this Aladdin’s lamp needs more than a rub to make it a pantomime of delights.
What other critics had to say.....
NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "[Ian] Mckellen remains the show's big, main attraction.....a wicked, comic pleasure." MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, "Inside McKellen there has always been a dame struggling to get out; and at last it's been joyously released." CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "The show is, as yet, far from perfect. At the press performance there were occasional technical glitches, and sometimes the steam goes out of Sean Mathias's production, especially when McKellen isn't on stage." BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, "McKellen is clearly having terrific fun and so, much of the time, are we." PAUL TAYLOR for THE INDEPENDENT says, "Bouncy, colourful and patchy production."