Brexit, Trump, yet more austerity – three reasons to be not so cheerful as we slide towards a belt tightening Christmas and a new year in a changed world. And three things that one would expect to be off the menu in the frothy, feelgood fantasy that is panto. Not so in Aladdin at the Lyric. Here the gold laden Emperor parades a frightwig every bit as preposterous as Herr Trump’s and in character is every bit as vulgar and insensitive, the downtrodden Jam’s are referred to as poors, and everybody without status or power – which is everybody bar the brittle crust – is in the throes of uncertainty and choking dearth. Here indeed is an Aladdin for our times.
It is a bold and risky move but perhaps a necessary one when Disney’s version of the story gallops to success in the West End. Our hero is still as perky and dextrous as we remember him to be, still has a hankering for the gold he imagines will lever him out of the gutter. But the monkey sidekick is gone, replaced by an inept brother known for his hopeless ideas. He is no longer a child of the streets but lives and works in a launderette presided over by his mother, the formidable Widow Twankey, played with lofty hauteur by James Doherty.
The story kicks off with a prologue by arch villain and grand vizier Abanazer (a stupendously over cooked Vikki Stone) who plans to plunder the hidden treasures of a desert cave so he can marry Princess Jasmine. From there it is but a short step to taking the crown from the Emperor himself. We then encounter Aladdin confiding in Wishy Washy his similarly treacherous plan of divesting the Emperor of his gold when he passes through the town. The plan goes awry (or perhaps aright) when in the melee his path crosses that of the Princess Jasmine and Cupid fires his little dart… With a price on his head for deigning to look upon royalty, the tale thereafter follows its familiar course. Aladdin and his brother, on the run, are tricked into entering the cave of treasure. Sealed up they discover the lamp and egged on by the audience they “rub out” the Genie. Three wishes are granted and Aladdin elects to become a prince so that he has the status to woo Jasmine. In the meantime Widow Twankey, who has lost her business and is reduced to pedalling a mobile washing machine, is entrusted with the lamp by Wishy Washy, loses it to Abanazer who becomes all powerful, who in turn is tricked into becoming a genie himself (spoiler alert) through Wishy Washy’s one good idea. You get the drift.
Many of the core team from last year’s Cinderella are back for seconds – director Ellen McDougall, set designer Oliver Townsend, lighting designer Tom Deiling, composer Corin Buckeridge, choreographer Lainie Baird. Karl Queensborough as Aladdin reprises the lead, going from Prince Charming to cheeky thief whilst retaining the semblance of a kid’s TV presenter mixed with the athleticism of a Black Douglas Fairbanks Junior.
There were contemporary jokes and innuendo for the adults and slapstick for the kids (and my five year old came to life in these moments – the more madcap the merrier). The sets were a colourful mixture of two dimensional painted backdrops (the barbed wire surrounding Peckingham Palace being a memorable example) and the three dimensional with outlandish props. The costumes mixed contemporary street for the leads and young ensemble and egregious DIY haute couture for the larger than life supporting players including Widow Twankey’s hardship dress fashioned out of Tesco’s and Morrison’s bags toped by a tin can headdress, and Abanazer’s glam rock inspired black and purple lycra number with echoes of Flash Gordon’s Ming the Merciless by way of Marc Bolan. There were regular doses of famous pop tunes including Michael Jackson’s Thriller and a rather wonderful moment when Aladdin and Jasmine duet on a flying carpet which levitates a good fifteen feet above the stage and hovers over the heads of the first four rows. (Looking for wires in the gloom I just detected the outline of a large mechanical arm like that of a robot, extending from the floor.)
But as much as I enjoyed myself (and I was genuinely gape jawed with amusement at times) the show never quite came together in the way I felt Cinderella had. Allyson Ava-Brown as Jasmine, embracing the girl power of a Spice Girl, sometimes veered too close to charmless. Malinda Parris as the Genie came on like a street talking rude girl and presented a fresh chance to reinvent the role, but the character never developed and the opportunity was missed. The choreography seemed a little subdued by comparison, the action set pieces less spectacular and more intermittent. A sideswipe at Trump had the subtlety of one of the President’s own verbal sallies. It almost seemed as though the ghost of austerity had inveigled its way into the production, having been summoned as one of the themes.
Perhaps the fact that Joel Horwood, the writer, having lost his erstwhile writing partner Morgan Lloyd Malcolm, had lost some of his magic in the process. Perhaps it was because lightning rarely strikes twice in the same place. Or perhaps it was because I came to the theatre with one pantomime already notched on my belt. No kiss is as sweet as the first.
Aladdin at the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith, until January 7th 2017. Website.