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January 10, 2005


The Principal

The Principal is happy to report that the visit to Aladdin was indeed a great success whatever the lacunae in the BW's brief after-show report to the PO. The BW and Button were very eager to discuss the minutiae of the performance and discoursed with the Principal and the Recluse on the topic very happily for a couple of hours next morning.

The first thing that impressed us all was the audience which was considerably more sophisticated than the usual local panto crowd ( The BW and Button had a good means of comparison as they had (thoroughly enjoyed) a very much more parochial and TV oriented ( I'm a Panto Celebrity -Get Me Out of Here etc.) themed version of Jack in the Beanstalk in Oakham only days before. For one thing there was a smaller proportion of children than usual - whether this is down to the cost of tickets, the loyalty and demographic of the usual Old Vic crowd or the significant gay contingent noted by Missy and the Surfer Dude in the bar, is up for debate - with none of the unruly extended families or gangs of guides or brownies whose exuberance can only sporadically be attributed to the actual theatrical activities. As a result the audience was extremely lively and on the ball but never noisy or restless.

The boos and hisses began the minute the villain's hand slithered around the proscenium column to be followed onto an empty stage by the slendidly turbaned and gowned body of Abanazer, played by Roger Allam. Within seconds we were gripped as he drew us into his evil plans, drawing us in with a range of vocal tricks, glittering eyes and sinuous body movements redolent of barn-storming melodrama of yore. He was, without doubt one of the great successes of the production.

Ababnazers' entrance certainly set the tone for a genuinely interactive experience which all the actors seemed to relish, none more so than Ian McKellen camping it up outrageously as Widow Twankey. As we were indeed sitting in the front row there was a special sense of intimacy. Button treasured her knowing wink from the Emperor of China and the Recluse enjoyed a similar moment from the Widow! The BW had to make do with a Fortune Cookie from Maureen Lipman's Dim Sum which he then generously handed over to his sister.

The show kept largely to traditional lines though unfortunately there was no opportunity to get the children on stage, which was a shame for the well-placed BW and Button (assuming they would have had the chutzpah to volunteer), but there was the regulation sing-song ( a mad bit of Chinese nonsense) and that old staple the comic wallpapering duo in which the pair of comic policemen, Hanky and Panky, were transformed into incompetent decorators and proceded to work through the old routine with impeccable comic timing accompanied by lashings of foaming "wallpaper paste".

Widow Twankey of course stopped the show every time he/she entered, each time in a more outrageous get-up. Button particularly enjoyed his Abba outfit, long, blonde wig and skin-tight, white satin jumpsuit, while Missy admired the sixties multi-coloured mini-coat with matching bag. McKellen sported a surprisingly slim, well-turned pair of legs and pouted and leered with relish. He can't sing or dance much but it really didn't matter, least of all in his big solo scene parodying a fading Judy Garland type star giving her final, sentimental performance.

The whole show was performed with great energy and even the most minor members of the chorus were obviously singing and dancing their hearts out. Aladdin was a latter-day Bay City Roller in tartan combat trousers while Widow Twankey's side-kick, Dim Sum, wore plus fours and a flat cap and of course Twankey herself came from Wigan ( north Peking). All this added up to an eclectic mix of styles and fashions which worked very well. Only the Princess Borubadur seemed slightly out of place. She sang well but her whole demeanour was a bit too stiff, as if she was not quite in tune with the joke.

We all particularly liked the set. The designs were inspired by drawings by Flo,the twelve year old daughter of last year's Turner prize winner, the transvestite, Grayson Perry. Her drawings have a lot of his quality and inspired the backdrops as well as the costumes. The sets were actually very simple but made very effective use of simple devices. The opening front curtain, for example, simply scrunched up and vanished back into a hole in a giant chest, a bit like an unfolding parachute in reverse. Later the cave of jewels was formed from more fabric which expanded from the chest until it formed a complete cave of fantastical hangings. Tne chorus were dressed in a crazy mixture of styles from skateboarders to twenties flapper,all in brilliant Chinese red and white. And the final wedding scene in white and gold will surely inspire the Surfer Dude's choice of wedding suit this summer!

We left the theatre throughly satisfied and then the Principal, Missy and the children legged it round to the stagedoor, pleased to be able to by-pass the orderly queue of autograph seekers, to have our audience with Widow Twankey alias Gandalf, alias Ian McKellen himself. Perhaps predictably it was a slightly awkward occasion as McKellen either did not remember the Principal or preferred not to allude to it ( that's another story!) but he was very gracious, spoke kindly to the children even though they were tongue-tied, and hinted he might do panto again at the Vic next year - if so, not to be missed. As Kevin Spacey will have learned, the panto tradition is a true staple of English tradition, infinitely flexible, still relevant and enjoyable and responds as well to this kind of high quality production and performances as it does to the village hall. So if he makes it a new Old Vic tradition we shall certainly be there.

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