Aladdin the Pantomime at The Brighton Centre

As the tune says, “There’s nothing like a dame” and – after a few years of delays on this show – boy did I want to see one.

So it was a real pleasure to be seated at the Brighton Center on Aladdin opening night to a very full house, surrounded by the excited chatter and general buzz of children, parents, grandparents and the odd oddball like me.

The story of Aladdin is a familiar one, although I daresay the Disney version is what most viewers now recognize as the authoritative version. Aside from a vague memory of Widow Twankey washing her sagging knickers while being chased through a Sheffield bingo hall by a man in a gorilla suit, the “real” panto story of Aladdin is a somewhat hazy memory.

What struck me very quickly was that E3 Group’s production of Aladdin draws very heavily on well-known pop-power ballads of the past 40 years, with those big, punchy numbers clearly being used to stitch the narrative together, drawing on the familiar and to create punchy, impactful moments throughout the show; Think contemporary fusion of panto and The Greatest Showman.

The songs were the highlights of the first act of the show as the scenes were a bit flat and challenging at first, but I would put that down to the actors’ understandable excitement on opening night.

But – in the world of panto – to tango you need two. Likewise, few of the youngsters in the audience have ever had the opportunity to witness a panto – or if they have, they may not remember the annual calendar tradition. I would also say, ostensibly as one, that we adults had forgotten that pantomime requires, indeed requires and feeds on, loud clapping, booing, cheering and heckling between the performers and the audience. Oh yes it does!

Some of the cast initially lacked confidence and stage presence, so luckily Empress Me Me, played by Carlene Graham, belted out a stunning medley of “Finally” and “I Will Survive” that broke the ice with audiences and invited the moms to join my row their hands in the air like they don’t care.

Aladdin at the Brighton Center

Aladdin at the Brighton Center

It stars Anita Dobson, who plays panto villain Abby Nazar. As you’d expect from a seasoned stage performer, Dobson demonstrated that she can still command a massive stage and is adept at measuring an audience and playing for the space. Her – sometimes wacky – singing and trills certainly struck a chord with the kids in the room, who also had a blast hissing and booing their evil plan to get the magic lamp.

Allison Ferns, who plays the dual roles of genius of the ring and genius of the lamp, might be fighting Shirley Bassey for her bucks in both sequins and the ability to chuck out a big tune with empathy. As a BBC radio presenter and ad libber pundit, her knee-jerk performance was panto gold and I’d bet my last sapphire or emerald that by the end of this run she’ll be deserting audiences. The closing performance of the first half of the show with Allison and the cast of dancers was perhaps the best, with a mise-en-scène to match.

Aladdin at the Brighton Center

Aladdin at the Brighton Center

The second act was head and shoulders above the first, with the cast filling the room with a new sense of energy. Opening night is never an easy gig, but by now the players and the entire audience had their “panto” on.

The all-important tongue-in-cheek reference that adults understand – and which either flies over children’s heads or gives them a sneak peek into the grown-up world – was generally successful, and was delivered with panache by panto-dame Mark Inscoe, who plays the widow performed Twinkey. I found some of the more outlandish jokes a little out of time and place, but if panto can’t push a few tongue-in-cheek boundaries, what form of theater can it?

As a jaded oldie, I didn’t really “get” the Aladdin or Jasmine characters played by Louis Gaudencio and Olivia Mitchell, but a cursory straw poll of the kids in the seats around me revealed them as some of the most relatable characters. As foils in the ensemble of the ideals of love, hope and purity, they were just too sweet for me; Give me Abby Nazar from Twisted Dobson every day.

Aladdin at the Brighton Center

Aladdin at the Brighton Center

Undoubtedly, Joe Bence, who plays Wisee Washee, was the glue that held the production together. Carrying many roles — host and narrator, friend and jester — his quick thinking, comedic timing, ability to connect with the audience, and sheer exuberance were a joy to behold. Undoubtedly, the children in the audience felt the greatest bond with his character.

Panto is a peculiarly British tradition that has roots in Italian commedia dell’arte, vaudeville, music hall, carnival, punch and judy, drag and stand-up comedy. The producers and cast really took on all of those traditional forms, along with a rockin’ soundtrack and contemporary tongue-in-cheek jokes to create a show that’s genuinely fun for all ages.

If you believe in magic this Christmas, then date Aladdin.

Aladdin runs at the Brighton Center until Tuesday 27 December 2022 with performances at 11am, 2pm and 5.30pm. Tickets cost £15-35. Book online: Aladdin the Pantomime at The Brighton Centre

Fry Electronics Team

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