It’s not often that I feel like a High Court judge, but as I peruse the Aladdin cast list at Liverpool’s cosy Epstein Theatre, I experience the same sense of disconnection from popular culture that occasionally afflicts m’learned friends. The Teletubbies, Gazza and Linford Christie’s lunch box have all baffled the judiciary at one time or another, and as I note that the Epstein’s Genie of the Lamp is being played by one Jordan Davies from something called Magaluf Weekender, I begin to wish that I too could harrumph loudly, bang my gavel and adjourn proceedings until I’ve consulted the last five years’ worth of Heat magazines.
With an admission like that in my opening paragraph, you may think I’m not the best person to review a show whose performers also include alumni from X Factor, Big Brother and the popular singing troupe Atomic Kitten. But while it is true that the performers’ biographies seem to be written in a code that only an Enigma machine could crack, I decide that my ignorance puts me in a great position to simply judge the production on the evidence before me. And as the lights go down and the band strikes up, it seems that the court is now in session.
It’s clear from the beginning that this Aladdin is an honest and down-to-earth production. It doesn’t strive for sophistication or attempt to take an original approach to the hoary old pantomime tropes. With its beaming smiles, thigh-slapping dance routines and sackful of gags swept up off the cracker factory floor, it delivers exactly what very many panto-goers want to see: a night of reliable mainstream entertainment in which the performers are having as much fun as the crowd.
Sean Smith as Aladdin makes a likeable hero, bouncing across the stage and belting out a pick ‘n’ mix of pop hits as chaos reigns around him. Natasha Hamilton is the princess who’s saving her heart for a commoner – even one with a curious contemporary haircut that’s part Lego man, part tuppenny all-off. And the show’s writer and director, Michael Chapman, plays the kind of sleazy wise-cracking Widow Twankey who’s probably partial to a couple of Woodbines and a swift pint of mild between service washes.
With its elegant Edwardian auditorium, the Epstein Theatre makes a great setting for traditional panto, and there’s certainly something distinctly old fashioned about this show. However, with its gaudy glamour, shrill showmanship and occasionally outrageous comedy orientalism, it resembles a 1970s Crackerjack episode rather more than anything from the golden age of music hall. Although admittedly, the eyebrows on display here are more impressive than anything Ed ‘Stewpot’ Stewart ever wore.
Of the reality TV stars on stage, Big Brother’s Mark Byron as the Slave of the Ring seems the more natural comic performer. His sharp scouse asides and put-downs are often hilarious, and I suspect that his natural sense of timing bears witness to many hours of catty banter honed in the corners of Liverpool’s clubs and bars.
Jordan Davies, who hails from the parish of Magaluf Weekender, fares less well, though he and the rest of the cast clearly know it. He shrugs and smiles as Widow Twankey picks apart his acting skills, and for all his misplaced punchlines and leaden wit, his presence is an endearing one. During a particularly manic Chinese-themed Twelve Days of Christmas sequence, he clutches his maladjusted radio mic to stop it flying off his belt, and it suddenly occurs to me that he may actually be afraid his sides are going to split.
A panto by its very nature is corny, predictable and often rough around the edges, and being in a panto means making the best of all these elements. The only way to do this effectively is to establish a gang mentality, to become a big panto posse capable of turning weak links into moments of fun and making the audience feel as though it’s welcome to join in the japes.
If that’s the test of a successful pantomime, then on the evidence of this performance, Aladdin at the Epstein achieves its goal. It may not have the biggest budget, the glitteriest stars or the tightest plot lines, but when it’s time to go home, you genuinely feel like one of the family.
Whether I’ll become a regular Magaluf Weekender viewer remains to be seen, but a show that can win round a sniffy old cynic like me must have something going for it. When Widow Twankey introduces the singalong finale as being a tune that was “massive in Ibiza” and it turns out to be Old McDonald, my inner light-entertainment lover breaks free and I guffaw for all I’m worth.
And that, m’lord, concludes the evidence for the defence. Court dismissed.
Photos: David Munn
Where: Epstein Theatre, Liverpool
When: until January 8, 2017