Inside the vastness of the O2 Centre there is a new temporary theatre structure seating (not very comfortably) 1,900 people marking the return to pantoland of Lily Savage, Paul O'Grady's scabrous Scouse alter ego with a basilisk stare and a blonde hairstyle higher than Julie Goodyear’s and Barbara Windsor’s rolled into one.
The joy of pantomime usually starts with the suitability of the theatre, whether it is Victorian plush and gilt or functional arts centre intimate. This Aladdin tries hard to create the appropriate seasonal atmosphere – there’s a huge shiny proscenium in Old Peking and a stage full of athletic, limber dancers – but it’s an uphill struggle.
And Lily’s Widow Twankey seems slightly off-colour, as though Paul O’Grady has lost interest in the role. She’s certainly not putting herself out, gliding gloriously through some spectacular costume changes - a black and white imperial fur Russian outfit is the pick – and adopting a casual, slap-down approach rather than a gleeful rod of iron.
The show starts in a Liverpool cemetery, which must be a first, where the last will and testament of old Twankey causes the family rift with Darren Bennett’s scheming Abanazer who, in his wicked square jaw and glittering black toque, resembles an unholy alliance of Freddie Starr and Gloria Swanson; in the desert, you could say he becomes Florence of Arabia.
The ructions in the Chinese laundry and the squabble over the lamp are perfunctorily engaged – there is no writer credited with the script – but the painted palace gardens, where former S Club 7 singer Jon Lee’s willing Aladdin first sets eyes on Marissa Dunlop’s Princess Jasmine, the colourful launderette (on a Street of a Thousand Scrubbers) and the Egyptian scenes are all generously and nostalgically well designed.
Best of all, there’s a rarity indeed in the sight of a ten-piece band at the side of the arena, blasting out accompaniment to a string of very welcome show songs from Chicago, Gigi, Gypsy, Nine and even Sister Act. And Randy Newman’s “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” proves a stirring duet for Issy van Randwyck’s Slave of the Ring and our hero.
Otherwise, alas, Issy ain’t too busy. Delroy Atkinson makes more of an impression as a bare-chested Genie of the Lamp, Jon Lee sails into the auditorium on a magic carpet, PC Ping and Pong (Matthew Rixon and Andy Spiegel) do the knockabout, and the rapid-fire “Twelve Days of Christmas” (five toilet rolls replacing the gold rings), and there are a couple of cuddly blue elephants.
What’s lacking is any real rapport with the audience, any local East End references, any raucous seasonal vulgarity. It’s as though Lily Savage has cleaned up her act and decided to be a grande dame instead of Maggie May’s docklands cousin; she’s virtually posh enough for the palace from the outset. The all-white winter land walk-down’s a treat, though, and the children, for once, are delightful.