ALADDIN at Bristol Hippodrome

The first live theatre I ever saw was a Bristol Old Vic production of Dick Whittington way back in the mid-1950’s, starring Lally Bowers as Fairy Snowflake. No pantomime I have seen since has quite recaptured the sense of wonder that I experienced back then – how could it? – but this production comes very close.

Sixty years ago, Christmas pantos did not have to compete with the breath-taking CGI effects we see on our widescreen TVs and at the movies.  It must be quite a challenge to match that kind of magic in a live show, but this Aladdin succeeds magnificently. It is certainly not short of awe-inspiring spectacle. There’s an enormous gorilla and an even bigger snake, but most stunning of all is a carpet that not only flies, but which performs daring aerobatics, thanks to some very clever trickery from The Twins FX. In the second half of the show you are taken on a ride on that carpet yourself, courtesy of Ian Westbrook 3D Creations – don’t forget to wear your magic glasses!  There are dazzling lights and noisy pyrotechnics, and some of the more intense effects might be a little overwhelming for the very youngest in the audience. But there are plenty of quieter and cuter moments, including dancing pandas and a couple of charming elephants. There’s a gert big Bristolian genie, too.

Best of all, Aladdin has a very strong cast.  Hayley Tamaddon is a sweet-voiced Princess Jasmine, and Alexis Gerred is a suitably dashing Aladdin.  Their tender love duet, set in a starlit palace garden, is the romantic highlight of the show.  David Robbins is a wonderfully grotesque Widow Twankey, with each new costume more gloriously hideous than the last – he designs them himself.  His jokes are either groan-inducingly feeble or just a little bit naughty, though this panto always keeps to the right side of family-friendliness.  Villainy is supplied by Marti Pellow, he of Wet, Wet, Wet fame. He is a splendid Abanazar, all shiny black leather and preening vanity, revelling in all the boos and hisses. His opponent is the beautiful Scheherazade, played with exotic elegance by Kimberley Blake.

But the undoubted star of the show is Joe Pasquale, as Wishee Washee. He puts his many years of experience in stand-up comedy to very good use, particularly in unscripted moments when things go a little awry, or when interacting with children from the audience. He has tremendous verbal dexterity, handling formidable tongue-twisters and rapid patter with aplomb. His anarchic disruption of an intimate moment between Jasmine and Aladdin is hilarious, so much so that last night all three actors corpsed helplessly, which only added to the fun.  No panto is complete without some slapstick, and here this takes the form of a four-part song, with actions. Aladdin wields a frying-pan, Widow Twankey is armed with a policeman’s truncheon, The Empress of China (Rebecca Bernice-Amissah) waves a feather duster. Wishee Washee, dressed somewhat improbably as a ballerina, suffers great indignities as he tries to avoid the pan, duster and truncheon. It’s a beautifully timed sequence, and very funny indeed.

Director and choreographer Jonny Bowles has done a great job with this pantomime. Though there is a much mayhem and silly fun, there is strong characterisation and a great deal of professional polish throughout. It is fast-paced, inventive and very, very spectacular.  When that carpet flies you will look in vain for the wires, for there aren’t any.  How do they do that? Magic!    ★★★★★    Mike Whitton   14th December 2018