Many of the West End playhouses are cumbersomely squeezed for foyer space. The Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch at least has the luxury of being able to comfortably accommodate two lifelike dragons – to terrify (or inspire, or puzzle) the many children gathered prior to the main house being opened.
Already it was clear that this is a production of Aladdin that stands apart, refusing to be influenced by the Disney animation, returning the setting to its older, traditional setting of China as opposed to the Middle East.
Mind you, that animated movie was the last Aladdin I saw. I must confess a decades-long dislike of panto, stretching back to schoolboy days. Even when I was in the target audience age range, I just never saw the appeal, and even more recently have often politely (and sometimes impolitely!) refused offers to attend a panto. However, Hornchurch has produced some highly impressive shows in 2015, and as some of the actors in those shows are back on the same stage over the festive period, I took the plunge and seized the opportunity to see something different from my usual theatrical diet of plays and musicals.
I gambled, and I won. Or, rather, the Queen’s has turned out triumphant. Carol Sloman’s music and lyrics are varied and often celebratory, without ever overdoing it: nothing musical was ever even a tad too much. Nicholas Pegg’s book is astonishingly current and peppered with local references: West Ham Football Club appears to be favoured over Arsenal, and even Havering Borough Council and the London Underground’s District Line get name-dropped.
Most of the show’s topical references were intended for the little ‘uns, though, and rightly so. Interestingly, the Shakespearean practice of female parts being played by boys is turned on its head here, with this Aladdin portrayed by Naomi Bullock. With little attempt to make Aladdin look masculine – other than to constantly refer to him as ‘he’ – there’s a curious moment or two in the courting process as Aladdin woos Princess Jasmine (Rachel Nottingham), at least visually.
There is some incredibly inventive staging – let’s just say the famous Magic Carpet does make an appearance, and a convincing one at that. There’s slightly more talking heads than I would have expected from a panto – the narrative is very strong, however, and with a performance as confident as this one, it elicits the ‘right’ responses without coming across as overly laboured or trying too hard.
Plenty of punchlines keep this most broad of audiences entertained, and overall, it was a very pleasant experience. I single out Matthew Quinn as Wishee Washee and Fred Broom as Widow Twankey as particularly delightful (Broom’s “Chinese proverbs” are worth the price of a ticket in itself), though the whole company functions very well as a whole, and are clearly enjoying themselves even as they sweat it out with all that movement, gesturing, and repeated demolition of the fourth wall. The choreography is sublime and flawless throughout, and a team of eight local children (there are three teams who cover all the performances between them) provide superb support, proving as adept as their adult counterparts in playing multiple characters.
I once said that I shouldn’t ever review a panto, because I’d never be able to see a panto in a positive light. I have pleasure in taking that statement back. The nearby town of Dagenham produced millions of Ford vehicles years ago; the Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch has manufactured a Rolls-Royce of a pantomime. This production of Aladdin proves you don’t need ‘celebrity casting’ to put on an outstanding panto. I never thought I’d say this, but the Queen’s has already announced they’re doing Cinderella in twelve months, and I am already looking forward to it. As for my hatred of panto, it’s behind me.
Review by Chris Omaweng
A Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch production
by Nicholas Pegg
music & lyrics by Carol Sloman
Rub the enchanted lamp, make a wish and join us on a magical carpet ride to our traditional pantomime.
Laugh along with our hilarious dame Widow Twankey, join in the fun and games with Wishee Washee at the laundry, boo the evil Abanazar and be dazzled by the powers of the Genie of the Lamp as our hero Aladdin rescues the beautiful princess…
Saturday 28th November 2015 – Saturday 9th January 2016
Hornchurch RM11 1QT