There are plenty of things which are synonymous with Christmas, and as we countdown to the big day, there’s something pretty damn lovely about taking the family to see a Pantomime. It’s something I don’t really remember doing as a child, but since our own kids have arrived it’s something I’ve really fallen in love with as an old school family festive tradition.
In 2018 I’ve got to know the team behind The Orchard Theatre in Dartford and have had some fabulous theatre trips with the family there. We took Tigs and her cousin to see Walliams’ Awful Auntie, and both the girls got to hang out with their favourite Bunny at Bing Live! So when I landed an invite to the press launch of Aladdin, starring none other than my nineties heartthrob Marti Pellow off of Wet Wet Wet, there was no way I was going to turn down the opportunity to be in the same four walls as Mr Pellow.
As it was an evening performance, I grabbed the chance to take none other than my own Mum along; a chance to step off the hamster wheel and have a giggle together, something we have spoken a lot lately about doing more of. It did feel a little strange heading to the panto without my daughters, but for a change, I got to be the daughter instead of the Mum.
I’ve always loved the set-up of The Orchard Theatre – for a local town theatre it has a truly grand feel and is perfect to watch a touring show without having to trek all the way to London. We sat in the stalls and had an excellent view of the stage and all of the intricate set which took us to the heart of Peking where the story began.
Marti plays the dark character Abanazar; the villain trying to track down the lamp from its one true owner, Aladdin. With some help from the evil powers he possesses, he manages to convince Aladdin to enter the deep caves to retrieve the lamp. Of course along the way the story twists and turns and features the boy meets girl, boy loses girl story of Aladdin (Alexis Gerred) and Jasmine (Stephanie Elstob) whilst the battle for the lamp and it’s mystical contents draws to a spectacular finale.
Aladdin has some help (ish), in the shape of his mother Widow Twankey (David Robbins) and his brother Wishee Washee (Ricky K). These two characters stole the show with their panto slapstick comedy, local town slurring puns and hilarious scenes of close to the mark comedy.
I mean, there ain’t nothing like a dame, and David Robbins brings all of the Pantomime Dame A game to Aladdin – the outfits alone are a feast for the eyes and the on stage chemistry between the two characters is a match made in heaven. Ricky K reminded me somewhat of Lee Evans meets Bradley Walsh, with the dance skills of Wayne Sleep thrown in for good measure. Panto has to be the only stage production where the bits that go wrong actually ADD to the performance, and this show was full of ad libbed hilarity and obvious mistakes which had the crowd in hysterics. I guess the beauty in them is that they are so funny it’s hard to know if they are scripted or not?!
Aladdin ticks so many boxes as to what you want from a family show – Fantastic music, vibrant and mesmerising sets, hilarious gags and breathtaking magic (let’s talk about how that magic carpet was actually flying?!). Of course there are ridiculous and repetitive singing and dancing sketches involving people getting donked over the head, buckets thrown and a healthy dose of audience participation. Plus the inevitable finale scene where the cast sparkles up the wardrobe and receives that well deserved standing ovation.
But what was exceptional, remarkable even about the performance was the use of 3D to kick start the second half. With 3D glasses distributed in the interval, the screen brought to life a magic carpet journey filled with monsters and spiders, rats and snakes as we travel from Peking to Abanazar’s lair in Egypt. The audience was screaming as the realistic scenes jumped off the stage into your personal space and it was like no other 3D experience I’ve seen before. Hats off to the production team – that truly was something special.
Of course the cast brought their own magic and the singing, dancing, wardrobe and story was brought to life by the incredibly talented ensemble, as well as the beautiful leading ladies Stephanie, Lucy Van Gasse and Landi Oshinowo. I thought it was a clever touch to add a fairy style character to the classic tale of Aladdin, whilst cleverly using puppetry and animatronics to summon the Genie from his lamp.
One of my favourite scenes had to be the wall love song; without wanting to ruin it, Wishy Washy, Aladdin and Jasmine had us splitting our sides and I loved seeing Jasmine give it some welly – exactly what our young girls need to see from their princess role models!
One of the hardest things was watching on, knowing my own kids, especially six year old Tigs would have LOVED this show. The giant creatures brought on to stage, the references to Baby Shark, ‘What does the fox say’ and Flossing would have been totally up her street – as would the elephant poo part. If you have a six year old, you’ll KNOW. The Mouse would have been all about the dancers, the princesses and the sparkles, and she would have had stars in her eyes as she waved goodbye to all of the cast.
And Marti? Last time our eyes met across a crowded room was in Wembley Arena circa 1995 and he definitely still has it! I have to admit I kind of missed his beaming smile as he channelled a more villainous look, but in that final scene the twinkly eyed Marti was there in full glory and I was kinda hoping he might just belt out a cheeky little Wet Wet Wet number. But alas, a Pantomime this is and you’d be right in guessing “Oh no he doesn’t”.
Of course the beauty of a panto is that it’s perfect entertainment for anyone and everyone; from mums carrying babies in the audience to the elderly and ‘young at heart’. An accessible variety performance that will warm your cockles, leave your worries at the door and get you in the mood for Christmas. For many people this is there first theatre experience and what a way to inspire the future generations of performers.
Thank you so much to The Orchard for granting me three wishes for the evening; a bit of time just me and my Mum, dodging the bath and bedtime routine, and of course, spending the evening with none other than Marti Pellow.
Love is definitely still all around.
Aladdin is running at The Dartford Orchard Theatre From Saturday 8th December to Sun 30 Dec 2018.
Book online at www.orchardtheatre.co.uk
Disclosure: Gifted tickets in return for an honest review