Paul Merton in Aladdin
© Craig Sugden
Review: Aladdin (New Wimbledon Theatre)
**** Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Author Alun Hood
17 December 2018
Pantomime is an art form: a merry, peculiarly British mix of popular and traditional that relies on an orgy of chaos that looks spontaneous but is actually crafted with the precision of a Swiss watch. If the Palladium has slightly dropped the ball this year, the same production company, Qdos, has picked it up and run to Wimbledon with it. This is a Christmas cracker (sorry).
Director Kerry Michael has a laudable history with the genre from his tenure at Stratford East and he brings a slightly subversive, contemporary edge to a show that also celebrates the beloved traditions of the panto form. This simultaneously feels fresh yet comfortingly familiar. It has lots of local references, but not to the extent that you'll feel alienated if you don't live in the borough, and a musical score that successfully mixes pop and show tunes. It's also blissfully hilarious. You'd have to be a real curmudgeon not to have fun here.
The chief source of mirth is the panto debut of Paul Merton as Widow Twankey. Making few, if any, concessions to femininity, this ole girl is a gloriously lugubrious creation, masterfully tossing off difficult tongue twisters, delivering questionable jokes ("get your parents to explain that one to you in the interval") and deadpanning through patter songs, it's a masterclass in understated comic brilliance. She/he has the audience eating out of the palm of her (large) hand. Merton will surely end up with a lucrative second career. I'd travel across the country to watch him doing this again.
Equally terrific is the cheeky, charming Wishee Washee of Pete Firman. As gifted a comedian as he is a clever magician, he plays the packed house like a mandolin, and actually makes audience participation a pleasure rather than a chore.
The good stuff doesn't stop there: Adam Pearce pitches his villainous Abanazar just right – he's suitably evil but with just the right amount of twinkle in the eye, and then lets loose a voice of liquid mercury, while Lauren Chia effortlessly makes Princess Jasmine both a conventional beauty and a feisty modern woman who can sort out her own adversaries, thank you very much.
Linda John-Pierre is a joy as the Empress, a gorgeous mix of fine comic timing and the kind of vocal gymnastics that make you clasp the arms of your seat and gasp. Despite a wan costume, Cassandra McCowan's Genie is also pitch-perfect, and delivers as good a "Defying Gravity" as I've heard from many green leading ladies in Wicked.
In such fine company, Lee Ryan's titular Aladdin is more benignly efficient than impressive, but he is likeable, sickeningly handsome and an undeniable thrill goes through the house when he launches into some of the Blue hits.
They get so much right here: the traditional song 'round' where the leading players get to test their mettle in a music hall-style number that gets more exhilarating as it gets more complicated to perform; the authentically thrilling 3D effects; the crazy glitz of the sets and most of the costumes. It's entirely worth spending your Christmas pounds on.