Old Vic, London SE1
Opened 16 December, 2005

One seldom sees the same panto production for a second year, but Sean Mathias' staging of this Bille Brown-scripted star vehicle has benefited hugely from a comprehensive overhaul in the intervening twelvemonth. Last year, aside from the luminous joy of Ian McKellen making the role of Widow Twankey his own, it felt like a studious pastiche trying assiduously to incorporate things that it knew were supposed to be fun but which time and again sputtered short of the mark. The 2005 version has excised entire routines, tightened the running time and focused on working the audience.

There's a more concentrated sense that, yes, panto should contain particular ingredients, but that what it needs primarily is a cast/audience relationship to animate the material. Neil McDermott's Aladdin has the bounciness of a kids' TV presenter, and Frances Barber as sidekick Dim Sum thoroughly eclipses Maureen Lipman's bizarrely muted performance last year (although, when a hitch occurred on press night, Barber was awkwardly unable to wing it until things were righted). Most spruced-up of all are the comic policemen Hanky and Panky: Matthew Wolfenden and Andrew Spillett are a pair of tumbling, grinning, spring-loaded fools, and they thoroughly deserve to be married off at the end... to each other, since a gay-wedding reference is one of the obligatory topical titbits along with the London congestion charge extension and so on.

Roger Allam's Abbanazar deserves as much praise as McKellen's Dame: he drips an attar of contempt, but keeps it palpably infused with comedy. And of course, all Twankey's outrageous costumes and gags are intact, from the spangly Abba knickerbockers suit to the knowing self-parody of McKellen's cinematic past as Gandalf when Aladdin is accused of stealing a ring: "Oh, not another Ring...!" But being less of a revelation this year, it leaves one free to consider that, new and improved fizz notwithstanding, this isn't really a children's show at bottom. John Napier's excellent designs may be based on the drawings of 12-year-old Flo Perry, but the raft of theatrical in-jokes (from Paul Grunert's fine emperor calling a scene "Pirandellian" to a gag about Kevin Spacey's new autograph hatch in the Old Vic's stage door) confirm that this is really an evening for the grown-ups, with enough silliness to keep the kids amused while indulging their parents in a bit of seasonal regression.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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