The Old Vic’s production of Aladdin was given a relatively affectionate welcome last year, thanks largely due to the surprise of finding Ian McKellen, at last, in panto guise and disguises. But instead of improving a year on, with the benefits of what was learnt last year about what worked and not worked (and I’m pleased to say that what I referred to as a “thunderously unfunny decorating scene” has been dropped), it has also been coarsened into something at once more grating and frequently rather too ribald.
This is now not so much a panto at the Old Vic as one at the Queen Vic, with the emphasis on the queens: instead of being a good family panto with strong inter-generational appeal, it rapidly descends into a relentless barrage of strenuous sexual innuendo, with lines like Widow Twankey’s “I’m going to butter my buns and slip into something tight” that wouldn’t go amiss from a bad drag act in a south London pub.
The tumbling, acrobatic policemen – played by an appealing pair of physical comedians, Matthew Wolfenden and Andrew Spillett – aren’t just called Hanky and Panky but are up to some of it themselves, and with each other: a gay marriage is explicitly on the horizon. Children today may be sophisticated enough to take this on board, but maybe I am not: I winced when Twankey, confronted by a massive black truncheon, says, “Put that away – it brings back memories… painful ones.”
At least there are no references to walking the dog and mobile phones, but then that might be a little too close to the tail that wags this particular dog. But the show is constantly self-referential in other ways, with references to artistic director Kevin Spacey’s stage door “autograph hatch” that very few members of the audience would have understood, I imagine.
Two pieces of re-casting see a sorry diminution of the spontaneity that panto also needs to thrive, and was sorely put to the test on the first night: Frances Barber, replacing Maureen Lipman as Dim Sum, was utterly floored by a malfunctioning set that saw the curtain brought in, but not before she was literally lost for words in a way that Lipman would never have been; while Paul Grunert as the Emperor has none of the anarchic comedy energy of his predecessor Sam Kelly, either.
McKellen guarantees an audience for this panto – the only one in the West End this year – so that the Old Vic probably has another financial hit on their hands, but bringing it back in this shape is artistic poverty.
- Mark Shenton
NOTE: The following THREE-STAR review dates from December 2004 and this production's original season at the Old Vic.
It doesn't necessarily take a Sir to play a Dame, but in the Old Vic's Aladdin, it certainly helps. Ian McKellen's last London theatrical outing may have been Strindberg's Dance of Death in March 2003, but now one of Britain's most celebrated classical actors - who returns to the Old Vic where he first appeared with Laurence Olivier's National Theatre Company as Claudio in Much Ado About Nothing in a 1965 Zeffirelli production that also featured Albert Finney and Robert Stephens - is kicking his heels up, rouging his cheeks, shaving his armpits and generally making a fine, sometimes fabulous and occasionally grizzled spectacle of himself as Widow Twanky in Sean Mathias's glitzy Christmas production.
Like Hilda Ogden from Coronation Street, complete with hair curlers beneath a net, McKellen makes his first appearance sporting a nifty green handbag, and his character declaring a long theatrical pedigree from light operatic appearances in Wigan. With references thrown in to Trevor Nunn, Peter Hall, Matthew Bourne and Fiona Shaw, there are quite a few theatrical in-jokes along the way. Like The Producers, even the set has them: "Spacey takes on Twanks", splashes a headline attributed to The Sun in a tiny corner of one of John Napier's back cloths.
Remove the T, of course, and you'd have something far more salacious, intentionally or not; and with Widow Twanky (who runs a laundrette) declaring, "I'm always ready for a big load," the production does sail close to the comic wind at times. But it doesn't always fly - or when it does, the effects are frequently a little smudged here.
It doesn't help that the press saw it on its third-ever showing, but then pantomime often has to fly by the seat of its pants (as the title character literally has to do on a flying carpet, in a moment virtually lost here), and there are some inevitable crash landings, such as a thunderously unfunny decorating scene or the worst audience sing-a-long effort I've seen in years. An otherwise underused Maureen Lipman - as the Wishy-Washy character here renamed Dim Sum and sporting a moustache - is most adept at the comic spontaneity required for the mishaps, such as dealing with a crackling microphone by declaring, "That's me old bones crackling."
Given a creative pedigree that also includes choreography by Wayne McGregor (so no naff panto dancing here!) and a company that features Roger Allam as the baddie, Sam Kelly as the Emperor, a likeable, tartan-trousered Joe McFadden in the title role and Owen Sharpe as one of the comic policeman (a role that McKellen himself once played in a 1962 Ipswich production of Aladdin), this is a panto of undoubted class and luxury casting. But it lacks the unruly energy of a more rough-and-ready commercial panto like New Wimbledon Theatre's current version of this story, or the charm of Hackney Empire's.
- Mark Shenton