Like a lot of people with a lifelong theatre habit, mine started with a pantomime. Having since written and acted in several, playing everything from Peter Pan to an Ugly Sister, I still love them and it’s delightful on the walk from Richmond station to the theatre, to see the excitement of so many diminutive theatregoers clutching a parental hand for whom this is their own ‘first night’.

The Ambassadors Theatre Group and its partner company First Family Entertainment has a solid recipe for traditional pantomime many of which it rotates efficiently around its provincial theatres year by year to share costs, and Richmond’s Aladdin is typical. There’s a script by Eric Potts (Diggory Compton in Coronation Street and Britain’s most prolific pantomime writer) a fly-tower-full of besparkled two-dimensional cloth sets covering seventeen scenes from back streets to Palace, and appropriately shiny and, for the dame, outrageous costumes: the ‘chinese takeaway’ outfit was particularly brilliant.

What there isn’t here is a ‘star turn’ quite as exotic as Dame Edna Everage whom they presented last year at Wimbledon, or even a veteran TV legend like David Hasselhoff, currently chewing the scenery as Captain Hook in Manchester. The headline name over the title is Suzanne Shaw, from the made-for-TV girl group Hear’Say here assaying the dual roles of Genie of the Lamp and the Ring – it’s a running joke that they saved a salary by hiring her for both – as identical twin muffin-topped Essex girl types in contrasting coloured harem pants.

Aladdin is played by local lad Gareth Leighton in a pantomime debut: whilst earning whistles from the mums in the audience when he takes his shirt off, he has an uneasy vocal start but wins us over eventually. Graham Hoadly as a Dick Emery-derived Widow Twankey and Jonathan D Ellis as a comparatively youthful Abanazar bring experience and capability to their roles but struggle with weak material: the script is neither robust traditional panto nor adult double-entendre, and many of the jokes fall flat. Chinese Emperor John Pennington, barely comic policeman Yo Santhaveesuk and lacklustre Princess Helena Dowling have yet to find their marks.

Musically, it’s a succession of truncated tweenage pop tunes and golden oldies from mum and dad’s era ranging from One Direction’s ‘You’re Beautiful’ to Queen’s ‘I Want It All’ and Barry Manilow’s ‘Could It Be Magic’. Bizarrely, the wedding finale is danced to The Monkees’ 1966 hit ‘I’m A Believer’ which you’d need to be a grandparent to remember as a pop song. Some of the numbers are performed to a vocal backing track covering the fact that the chorus numbers only three boys and three girls, augmented occasionally by a dozen local school children who do a pretty good job, although it still feels downsized.

Not that many of the junior patrons were affected by these imperfections: the plot works, and when Abanazar steals back the magic lamp, many rose to their small feet shouting in righteous indignation at his dastardly deeds.

The evening is almost entirely rescued single-handedly by Tim Vine as Wishee-Washee. He’s a one-man repository of every bad Christmas cracker joke, and both his delivery and timing represent a masterclass in stage comedy since he manages to include both children and adults in his confiding asides. He works well with Hoadly: their balloon ballet and a creditable version of Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s On Next” sketch are the highlights of the show, and his too-brief Gangnam style routine brought the only spontaneous applause and cheers of the night.

Photo: Peter Schiazza

Runs until 13th January 2013

The Public ReviewsOriginally published on The Public Reviews.