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Aladdin review – a surprising treat that honours panto traditions with a generosity of spirit

The panto production runs at the Lyric Hammersmith Theatre

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Qasim Mahmood and Carla-Jean Lares in Aladdin
© Tristram Kenton

I don't like panto. And before you shout oh yes you do, let me explain. All that hearty singing along and the terrifying danger that I might be called on to join in bothered me as a child, and doesn't do much for me as an adult. So trust me when I say that Aladdin at the Lyric is a really surprising treat.

For one thing, this show, written by Vikki Stone and directed by Abigail Graham, walks a delicate line between being whole-hearted and knowing at the same time. The opening number, featuring custard pies, a panto cow, and banana-skin pratfalls, is a song – set to Blur's Parklife – which actually celebrates the fact that they are in panto. In the same spirit, the Dame – Dave Twankey, who is simply a man in a dress – knows that his jokes are lame. "I feel light-hearted," he says, pointing to the lampshade on his head.

At the same time, panto traditions are honoured. The songs, with live musicians, are clever and well sung. There is the famous Hammersmith drum roll, a joke told for more than a decade without showing any signs of flagging, an enthusiastic chase sequence, and a flying carpet which really is magical.

The creators have thrown in plenty of new gags of their own. The hard-working Kate Donnachie who also appears as Dan Hackie-Eton on the cast sheet, doubles as a beat-boxing Genie and the Emperor, a Boris Johnson-ish bluffer, in clown shoes, fat suit and a mad blond wig, complete with expensive briefing room, speeches in which he loses his place and a liking for flags. Irvine Iqbal's Abanazer appears with an evil laugh, and also with his own personal climate of lightning and rain; giving his presentations in the briefing room, he gets his assistants to change the slide.

Aladdin's cave is stuffed not just with gold, but with hard-to-find Pokemons; Twankey's launderette is also a micro-brewery; Gracie McGonigal, as the kindly Wishy, is arrested at an M4 road-expansion protest. He provokes enthusiastic booing. A rescue mission is staged by Sea Shanty singing fishermen. There's an evil chicken, for no reason I can see, but it's very funny.

Gender stereotypes are lightly rethought. Princess Jasmine (Ellena Vincent) is a woman who knows her own mind and loves comic books. Qasim Mahmood's Aladdin, on the other hand, is a bit rubbish but you warm to him as his love guides him to becoming a better person.

The mood is gentle and enthusiastic; the cast warm and all-embracing. Members of the Lyric's community Ensemble make up the chorus. All of them work incredibly hard to involve the audience, which at a Saturday matinee, was mainly quite young. In the evenings, the vibe may be a little different, but here there was no smut, no cynicism.

In fact, there was an oooh of appreciation when Lily Arnold's simple yet hugely effective designs revealed the gold-lined cave of Aladdin, which made the point that panto can sometimes be an entry point for the wonder of theatre. Certainly, this one ought to be. It has a generosity of spirit and a vivacity in performance that sent me out into a cold day with a Christmas glow in my heart.

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