I saw my first pantomime at the Everyman (then still the Opera House) when I was about five. It influenced my life and set me on a path which I am still on more than half a century later. The importance of a visit to the theatre for a young child cannot be underestimated. To have such a spectacle unfold on a giant stage can change the way they look at the world – something that staring at a tiny screen can never do.
Pantomimes go back centuries, developing from the Commedia dell‘arte in 16th century Italy, and consequently tradition and convention are two of their most valuable and important assets. Things change though, even traditions. I read in one of the papers this morning that principal boys and pantomime dames are gradually disappearing, that people no longer find cross-dressing funny. Well, the person who wrote that clearly hasn’t seen William Elliott in full steam as Widow Twanky in Aladdin at the Everyman, Cheltenham. Willie has everything a dame should have and a little bit more besides. He is a dame of the old school, and all the better for it. And, as we all know, there ain’t nothin’ like one.
But it’s not only Willie. Over the past six or seven years writer and director Phil Clark has brought together a troupe of stalwarts who can do no wrong. As I have said many times before, the Everyman presents traditional pantomimes at their best with no concessions made to having some C-list, so-called celebrity that nobody’s ever heard of fluffing their lines.
Aladdin is probably one of the best pantomime stories, a story that affords the opportunity for real magic and Phil’s production does not disappoint. In addition to Willie all the regulars are there including Tweedy the Clown, making his second appearance, Mark Hyde as The Emperor and pretty Perry Lambert as the lovely Princess Jasmine. Those of you who have seen Tweedy will not need me to sing his praises. Tweedy is one of those rare people who you cannot look at, or even think about, without smiling. With him on board, Everyman pantomimes cannot fail.
There are a few newcomers as well. Harveen Mann was enchanting as the Genie and truly exotic. I loved her. Taking over from Zara Ramm as the baddy meant that Andrew Westfield had some pretty big boots to fill – metaphorically of course. Andrew managed to fill them to overflowing (again metaphorically) and was excellent and suitably evil as the wicked Abanazar. However, it was his solo spot, as an unlikely Freddie Mercury, complete with yellow plastic jacket and sawn-off microphone stand that for me, Tweedy notwithstanding, stole the show. To see this large, bearded, menacing character with big boots (literally) prancing around à la late-lamented Freddie singing a medley of Queen songs was truly side-splitting. Perhaps next year they could contrive to have double-act baddies with Andrew and Zara. That would be something to see. Are you reading this Phil?
Visually Aladdin was pretty outstanding too. The sets, lighting and special effects, including a flying carpet, were superb. However, there was one rather odd moment when they all went off to Africa and arrived in what appeared to be a Yurt with everyone wearing pseudo-Mongolian costumes. But hey, this wasn’t a geography lesson. While we are on the subject, the costumes this year were truly outstanding. They really looked rich and expensive and were just right.
Wyn Pearson’s musical direction was, as we have come to expect, immaculate and evocative and all in all, apart from the dodgy Yurt, it would by hard to find anything to criticise.
If you’ve got children take them along to see Aladdin. If you don’t have children, think of another excuse and go anyway. ★★★★★ Michael Hasted
Special Bonus Track
Watch our exclusive video of Aladdin in rehearsal