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THEATRE REVIEW: Aladdin/Manchester Palace

Joan Davies braves the kids and Corrie stars to report on this year's big panto up t'road

Published on December 11th 2009.


THEATRE REVIEW: Aladdin/Manchester Palace

THE tradition of employing soap stars to pack the punters into panto is almost certainly not as old as panto itself but shows no sign of being a passing fad. At the Opera House, Gray O’Brien appears as arch villain Abanazar, having served his apprenticeship pushing Corrie’s Roy Cropper into a canal and ordering hit’n’run for his love rival Liam.

Just like the street hawkers and the star-awaiting photographers in Quay Street, the audience knows its role and plays it well, cheering the good, booing the bad and providing adolescent noises of approval for good looks, romance and street dancing.

There’s plenty of choice for Christmas family entertainment, but this is Manchester’s Big Panto. The excitement and sense of occasion spill out onto Quay Street and back into the buzz of the auditorium, where it seems that every child in Manchester has gathered.

The story’s familiar, the style’s familiar, the songs and even the jokes are familiar. But that’s what we’ve come for: a British tradition, lovingly preserved, with few surprises but a gradual adaptation to modern mores (more of which later).

Aladdin, a Middle Eastern tale but always set in China, is the classic rags-to-riches story. There's romance, a princess, a wicked, would-be world dominator, and a not very surprising ending, all helped along by not one but two genies: a ring genie and a lamp genie. Apparently there’s a large difference, and quite a hierarchy in the genie world.

Just like the street hawkers and the star-awaiting photographers in Quay Street, the audience knows its role and plays it well, cheering the good, booing the bad and providing adolescent noises of approval for good looks, romance and street dancing. The panto however takes a little time to truly entertain. In fact it’s almost an hour before the audience is engaged enough to give a natural rather than learned response.

The popular character of Wishy Washy can be written and played as an almost entirely child-like figure – an adult who shares the child’s world, offering his knowledge and revealing his innocence without hiding behind irony. That convention allows him rapid bonding and trust with the children in the audience. He’s their Wishy Washy; he doesn’t belong to the adults. But where the kids are drawn in, the adults follow.

However this production’s Wishy Washy is written with a good dose of the local scally about him. Although he’s well-played by Mike McClean, the bonding takes a while and the children never fully invest their trust in him.

It is however McClean as Wishy Washy who provides the take-off moment for the show – the point where the audience relaxes and really enjoys itself – through some simple yet deft stage-business involving apples, a princess and the hero.

Performances are sound. Hollyoaks and Dancing on Ice favourite Chris Fountain as Aladdin is popular with the teenage girls as he sings, dances and bounds about the stage in an endearing way. Former BBC Radio 2 Choirgirl of the Year, Eloise Irving, is a beautifully-voiced Princess Jasmine, playing the naïve role with a surprising impact. Sue Devaney (from Corrie and Dinner Ladies) as the down-to-earth, Manchester-style Genie of the Ring has great comic timing, stage presence and lots of local references. She even gives guidance on crossing Deansgate.

The star of the show is undoubtedly Eric Potts, a superb and experienced widow played in the best pantomime dame tradition of mild innuendo and supporting frocks. Potts, who played Mollie’s baker dad Diggory Compton in Corrie, also wrote and directed the show, bringing many of the old traditions to the Opera House stage.

As the baddie, Gray O’Brien’s obligatory, chilling voice proclaims his power, ambition and threats. A few lurches into his native Glaswegian add humour. Abanazar swaggers about in a wonderfully rich costume, dark with flashes of gold to match his heart and his desires. But it can look as if it’s going to choke him; he’s probably more suited to Italian tailoring.

My favourite characters were the vertical magic carpet and the Genie of the Lamp, played by Joe Speare, a former member of soul band Chairman of the Board. We see and hear far too little of him. A superb voice.

As for the modern mores, a 2009 Aladdin can’t contemplate life with an enslaved genie, so he gives him his freedom, to which the genie responds with Mandelian dignity.

The band’s great, there’s plenty of costume and set changes, but for me the best points were those that cost little. The warmth of the stage relationship between Eric Potts and the children’s chorus, and the sight of Potts in his tutu partnering McClean in a perfectly-timed ballet dance work wonderfully to explain the enduring appeal of the genre.

This familiar tale of laundries, lamps, innocence and wickedness is a good British panto. Not quite a great British panto, but it’s heading in the right direction.

Aladdin, Opera House, until Sunday 3 January, £9.50-£24.50. Tuesday to Saturday: 2.30pm and 7pm. Sunday: 1pm and 5pm. Monday 28 December to Sunday 3 January: 1pm and 5pm.

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