THE traditional Christmas Panto is thankfully still alive and kicking, particularly at Manchester’s Opera House where First Family Entertainment’s production, Aladdin, kicks off the season in fine voice.
I hear it’s the only panto this year without an Ed Balls joke
To fuel the essential audience voice we make a quick stop off at Per Tutti restaurant, handily placed on the Deansgate end of Liverpool Road, for some pre-panto nosh. The children’s menu and the Christmas menu - including a delightful mushroom and stilton tart with mulled pear puree and rocket - provide excellent family and veggie friendly choices over two or three tasty courses as well as a calm environment for a catch-up chat (and a glass of bubbles) before we set off on the short walk to the night’s main excitement.
And exciting it is, the simple device of displaying live audience shots builds on the anticipation until the countdown takes us to Widow Twankey’s garish Chinese Laundry, a China governed by an Emperor and a Princess, but also familiar with modern notions such as #hashtags. Logic and recent history have no place in panto.
This year’s Aladdin is charmingly played by singer Ben Adams, former lead singer of the band A1 and a successful classical singer too, while magician Neil Henry entertains and engages the children as his brother, Wishee Washee. Claire-Marie Hall is a strong, modern Princess Jasmine who largely makes her own decisions. And that’s quite a panto achievement.
Writer and director Eric Potts with years of experience behind him, rewards his cast by allowing them to play to their strengths, so that Aladdin sings and dances, Wishee Washee performs a few magic tricks, Sheree Hewson, Genie of the Ring, natters and makes jokes about Reg Holdsworth, and Joe Speare, Genie of the Lamp, sings with power.
Per Tutti provides excellent pre-theatre nosh
...while John Tompson provides the in-theatre laughs
Strange sight of the month so far is lovable local John Thomson, as Abanazar, singing The Stones’ Sympathy for the Devil while playing the timbales. I’m not sure that’s playing to his strength, even if his timbale style is ‘nice’ly jazz infused (perhaps it’s wish fulfilment). John Thomson’s strength is engaging audience empathy, and even in the role of wicked Abanazar he can’t quite fail to play to it. But it’s quite a charming change.
The first half is rather bitty. There’s a modern-day problem with panto in that jokes need to have a common denominator and modern audiences largely don’t follow the same news or watch the same tv programmes, so many of the jokes, apart from Trump and hashtags, appeal to a section of audience rather than the whole. I hear it’s the only panto this year without an Ed Balls joke.
The second half more than makes up for an uneven start. Potts’ approach to talent includes giving full reign to his own. He can do song and dance, so in playing Widow Twankey he says Hello to Dolly, and gives us ‘fat man ballet dancing in a pink tutu’ to absolute comic perfection. I think he does it every year. For the rest of the year you manage to live without it, but if it’s not there next year I’ll feel cheated.
There’s real magic here, which doesn’t just rely on Wishee Washee’s skills. My guest, nine-year-old panto-barometer Lulu, loved it. Somehow panto can put together a dated story, some mildly less-dated jokes, a few songs, a puff of magic and engage everyone, sending the audience out singing and smiling into the Manchester night. That they do so is through a mix of talent, commitment and hard-work.
This year’s chorus and the wardrobe department both deserve the special attention they get in the programme. The dancers are a delight, including the local children from The Gwyneth Hare School of Dancing. The wardrobe is stunning, with Widow Twankey never missing an opportunity for an attention-seeking costume change, even a reference to Gaultier’s work for Madonna creeps in.
And just time for us to vogue our way back to Per Tutti for a post-theatre martini - I'm sure Twankey would approve.
Aladdin runs at Manchester’s Opera House from Friday 9 December 2016 – Sunday 8 January 2017. Tickets here