It’s Christmas at the New Theatre again, and there’s nothing more festive than a pantomime. After nearly two years of not being able to boo or hiss (except at our elected representatives), pantomime is finally back – and you can’t get better than Aladdin, which graces the Cardiff stage this month. Produced by Crossroads Live, the world’s biggest pantomime producer, Aladdin has honed a recipe for the perfect panto: a dashing hero, a charming princess, a nefarious villain, and more ‘Oh no it isn’t’s than you can shake a stick at.
Though my latent love of panto has only recently been reawakened, I do have very fond memories of the Aladdin that ITV used to re-run every Christmas in the early 00s (the one featuring a knock-out performance by S Club 7). And this new version is even better, with Alan McHugh’s script and The Twins FX bringing the story and effects right up to date while retaining that rambunctious sense of classic family fun. Directed by Matt Slack, the story is set in ‘the mystical Empire of Caerdydd’ and follows Aladdin (Gareth Gates) and Princess Jasmine (Denquar Chupak), who want to get married against the wishes of Jasmine’s mother, the Empress (Lorraine Brown). Unbeknownst to him, Aladdin is the Chosen One, the only person who can retrieve the Magic Lamp from the Cave of Wonders – and an evil sorcerer, Abanazar (Stefan Pejic), plots to use him to steal the Lamp and rule the universe.
Now a star of musical theatre including Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat, Les Miserables and Legally Blonde, Gareth Gates first stepped into the spotlight during the first series of Pop Idol, and has never looked back. Gates and Chupak make a perfect fairytale couple, and lay claim to some of the show’s poppiest highlights, featuring songs like High Hopes, Permission to Dance, Dynamite and a gorgeous rendition of Unchained Melody (Gates’ first number one single, and one which he sings even more beautifully now – and that’s really saying something). It’s also wonderful to see that this Princess Jasmine is more than capable of saving herself.
The show’s main purveyors of unhinged hilarity are legendary entertainer Paul Chuckle as Aladdin’s brother, Wishee Washee, and the fabulous Mike Doyle as their mother Widow Twankey (aka the First Lady of Panto). Chuckle’s comic timing is second to none, while Doyle, the New Theatre’s Pantomime Dame in residence, has fine-tuned the art of hamming it up. Doyle makes an unforgettable entrance: wearing a washing machine on his head and twerking to Bang Bang by Jessie J, Ariana Grande and Nick Minaj (one Dame to twerk them all?) Somehow, the outfit which features a stuffed panda on each hip isn’t even the most OTT ensemble he sports – though the award for best dressed might just go to local hero Gareth ‘Alfie’ Thomas as the Genie of the Lamp, who flexes his way across the stage to David Bowie’s Jean Genie wearing little but harem pants, feathers, and a smile. He’s as thrilling to watch on the stage as he is on the pitch – and, along with Chuckle and Doyle, make for one hell of a triple crown.
Everyone on stage is having a blast, and the joy is (dare I say) infectious. Doyle and Chuckle are constantly trying to one-up each other in the slapstick department, but the true winner is the audience. Lorraine Brown is an uber-glamorous Empress and Stephanie Webber an exceedingly elegant Scherezade, Spirit of the Ring; meanwhile Michael Morwood and the New Theatre Orchestra are on top form, and the Flying Carpet is used sparingly but spectacularly.
As the ominous Abanazar, Stefan Pejic slinks around the stage like the eyelinered lovechild of Tim Curry and Ming the Merciless, stealing scenes, hearts and hisses as he goes – don’t get me wrong, the rest of the cast are on their A-game, it’s just that Pejic has transcended the alphabet entirely. He opens Act 2 with a bang, performing Chris Cornell’s You Know My Name while ninja-dancers do a Matrix Paso Doble around him (kudos to Rory Beaton’s lighting and Steven Harris’ choreography too). I would gladly have watched Pejic read out a manual on installing drywall for two hours and I would have loved every second.
Aladdin is a story we all know and love, and this new production is brimming with tongue twisters and double entendres and slapstick – oh my! The energy of the cast is simply incredible – and with two shows a day, that’s nothing short of Herculean. If you get three wishes this year, make this one of them.
In line with Welsh Government legislation, everyone over 18 attending the show will need to show an NHS Covid Pass or proof of a recent negative Covid test result with photo ID. The New Theatre Centre have implemented a number of COVID safety measures to keep audiences and the cast safe throughout performances.