Theatre Royal, Brighton
Opened 16 December, 2003

I have often been sniffy about pantomimes which cast semi-celebrities for the sake of it. Sometimes, though, a "name" will put real effort into the show, with delicious results. Kevin Kennedy is under no illusions about his function in Aladdin at Brighton: the presence of "Curly Watts" as Wishee Washee generates a few Coronation Street references, but principally he's there to be a great big lovable eejit. By gum, he goes for it, with more brio and more success than anyone I've seen in a corresponding role this festive season. He kicks off with a brief stand-up routine; the jokes are on the venerable side, but he gets full mileage out of them. And for the next two hours, he doesn't stint in being best mate to the audience as well as to Caroline Head's requisitely leggy Aladdin.

Kennedy isn't the only small-screen name in the production, but the rest of the complement only ring bells for those of us of a certain generation. The villainous Abanazar is played by David Roper from sitcom The Cuckoo Waltz; Widow Twankey is Bobby Bennett, former host of children's variety programme Junior Showtime; the director is George Layton, of Doctor At Large and It Ain't Half Hot, Mum! It's '70s cheese-TV nostalgia heaven, but nevertheless makes for a fine panto. Bennett, in particular, is one of the best dames working at the moment; he keeps his ridiculousness just this side of grotesque, and meshes particularly well with Kennedy. At one point on the press night, they spent some minutes minutes corpsing each other when Bennett's wig came unexpectedly adrift.

It's an excellent confection altogether: visually impressive, with a musical blend of big-show-type numbers and pop standards, and even a "spesh", a speciality act in the form of tumbling trio the Acromaniacs, who play the Peking police as if straight off the backlot at Keystone. Jonathan Kiley's script is also, I have to say, the filthiest I've encountered for some time... mostly just at the "knickers" level, but with one or two more adult nudge-nudges. Kiley and Layton know that a Brighton audience is likely to be a little funkier than the national average, and they cater to it expertly. If your panto has to include faces off the telly, then this is the way to do it.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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