images © Alex Styles.
Midway through the second Act of Wolverhampton Grand’s shiny new in-house production of Aladdin, former Eastenders star, Michael ‘Beppe’ Greco, is swung around in a harness above blasts of flame, as his villainous Abanazar croons at the edges of Robbie William’s ‘Let Me Entertain You’. It’s as bizarre – and nineties – as it sounds, and cements one clear train of thought.
We’re certainly back in panto land.
That Greco’s warbling and aerial hijinks sort of work anyway is, if anything, testimony to the crackerjack, madcap quality of the show that the Grand have put together in this, their own panto adventure (in association with Evolution Productions). It’s a slice of panto easily as funny, visually engaging and colourful as any of the former QDOS’ offerings that were, up until relatively recently, annual Christmas fixtures for the theatre.
Look, we’re not talking about the reinvention of the wheel, here. Although discussions continue to abound about the progression of the art form of pantomime, and its place amongst 21st Century sensibilities, for the most part this is hearty, traditional British panto fare, brought to the stage by a game and vibrant cast. Aladdin is a particularly juicy choice, with its dastardly sorcerers, high flying carpets and powerful genies – not to mention, in this version at least, a rather scene-stealing (if disappointingly underutilised) elephant.
“Ryan’s a tremendously safe and spontaneously funny pair of hands as the show’s de facto comic relief, and it isn’t at all difficult to see why was invited back…”
It certainly looks the part, but the real measure of any successful panto is in how much it gets at the funny bone, and it’s here that Wolverhampton have a particularly giggle-worthy pair of aces up their sleeves. Comedian Tam Ryan, fresh from an award-winning run in last year’s Cinderella, returns to Wolverhampton as the loveable Wishee Washee, here sporting a burgeoning career as a rap (or is that tortilla?) artist. Ryan’s a tremendously safe and spontaneously funny pair of hands as the show’s de facto comic relief, and it isn’t at all difficult to see why was invited back, as the show’s earliest casting announcement. He’s also buoyed by the ever-fabulous Ian Adams, another Grand returnee, who, bedecked in an increasingly zany wardrobe as Widow Twankey, remains, pound for pound, innuendo for innuendo, one of the finest working panto dames in the ‘biz.
There are plenty of fun and boisterous set pieces injected throughout Aladdin to keep audiences of all ages entertained and involved, from an early spot of sud-soaked slapstick in Twankey’s launderette, some spirited spars of oral gymnastics (…careful), and an entire number dedicated to the old ‘he’s behind you’ chestnut, which saw the entire auditorium screaming and shouting along. Will Brenton’s script includes plenty of pokes and jabs at popular culture and the wider world, including not one, but two, barbs aimed Liz Truss’ way and jabs at everything from Boy George in the I’m A Celeb jungle to, well, Boris Johnson’s hair (…it wouldn’t be Christmas without it now, let’s face it). And then there’s the compulsory romance blossoming, this time between titular rascal Aladdin (CBeebies’ Ben Cajee) and young Jasmine (Sofie Anné), who is here daughter of the town’s cynical yet amusingly bumbling Notary (Ian Billings). Duane Gooden pops up sporadically throughout the second Act for the odd bit of song and dance silliness as the Genie of the Lamp, presented here as a kind of CliffsNotes riff on the same character from Disney’s West End and Broadway show.
“Pop Idol contestant turned bonafide West End leading lady, Zoe Birkett, routinely threatens to carry away with the whole show…”
Everyone’s clearly giving it their all, and it is, crucially, a whole lot of fun. Sure, Cajee isn’t the most effortlessly naturalistic of leading men, and he’s completely out-sung by the talent around him, but it’s panto; those expecting Chekhov should probably check out. On the subject of music and singing, though, Pop Idol contestant turned bonafide West End leading lady, Zoe Birkett, routinely threatens to carry away with the whole show. From Arabia (in London’s Moulin Rouge) to Arabian Nights, her feisty yet kindly Spirit of the Ring is a bundle of fizz and Northern warmth, lighting up the stage whenever she appears, whilst positively tearing through some seriously demanding sings, including Wicked tentpole ‘Defying Gravity’. She’s regularly one of the best things about an already solid production, though it has to be said, newcomer Sofie Anné delivers some top notch vocals throughout, too.
Charting a new course for their yearly pantomime adventures, the Wolverhampton Grand have certainly hit the ground running with this vibrant treasure trove of family-friendly treats in Aladdin. In Adams, Birkett and Ryan in particular, they serve up some serious panto wattage to power the engine of all things funny and fabulous, and, as a spirited bundle of classic panto riches, Aladdin proves itself a very easy recommendation to grant all your feel-good wishes this Christmas and New Year.