There is one scene in this sparkling production of Aladdin that made me want to punch the air in joy. It is a lengthy routine to a song called "If I Were Not In Old Peking", in which Christopher Biggins (as Widow Twankey), Issy van Randwyck (as Scheherazade), Rikki Jay (as Wishee Washee) and Count Arthur Strong (as Emperor Ming) mime a series of actions that involve them flinging their arms in the air or waving a truncheon around.
Naturally, Count Arthur, incongruously dressed as a ballet dancer, gets the worst of it, being constantly battered by the others as they mime flipping pancakes or playing tennis; as the song progresses, he has to take two parts and run frantically between the characters. I suspect the entire thing is based on an old music hall routine and the fact that writers Jonathan Kiley and Alan McHugh have included it here is a sophisticated tribute to what pantomime used to be. It brings the house down too.
But too much of the pleasure of this really honourable pantomime is lost in the fact that the Thursday night audience of children aren’t there to be entertained by such well-honed fare. They are there to hiss at the villain, to laugh at the Dame (Biggins obliges with a selection of ever more outrageous outfits culminating in a Christmas bauble and a Chinese vase) and to eat a lot of sweets.
I have some sympathy with them. The trouble with pantomime is that it is old-fashioned entertainment served up as if it is automatically the case that everyone will love it. Whereas in fact, the very traditions that make it as much a part of Christmas as mince pies and Christmas pudding (in my experience also not much beloved by contemporary children) make it difficult for new young audiences to understand or warm to.
That moan out of the way, anyone who does like pantomime should go to Richmond post-haste because this is a lovely show, with a lot of care and attention lavished on the jokes (some good local ones, some classic puns and no smut), the dancing (energetic and slick with choreography by Paul Robinson) and the sets and costumes which are glittery and colourful. There are real and metaphorical fireworks thrown in, and a really magical flying carpet.
Under Ken Alexander’s speedy direction even the songs pass painlessly enough and the audience participation is appealing rather than cringe-making. (Though I felt slightly sorry for the gentleman who was deprived of his jumper for most of the show.)
I find Biggins’ Dame a bit matter-a-fact, but he has some good moments; Jay works fantastically hard and gets brilliantly through the evening’s longest comedy set-piece, unloading a shopping trolley laden with puns about chatting up a woman he has met. AJ Jenks is an attractively straight-forward Aladdin and Bob Harms a gleeful Abanazzar, whose name is never pronounced properly by anyone who uses it.
And for me, Count Arthur Strong can do no wrong. I loved his ongoing battle with the orchestra, who announced his every entrance with a sounding gong. "It’s ruined the whole show for me, Christopher," he said sadly as he wandered off. It made mine.
Aladdin runs at Richmond Theatre 14 January 2018.