ALADDIN
Lyric Hammersmith, London W6
Opened 2 December, 2011
CINDERELLA
Hackney Empire, London E8
Opened 1 December, 2011
**** / ****

Early results from the Panto League indicate that last season’s champion “All The Single Ladies” has been relegated, and the strongest musical contender for mandatory inclusion in this year’s pantomimes is “Price Tag” by Jessie J. At one point or another the denizens of the fairytale lands of both Ha-Ma-Smit and Harknee-on-Lea share their desire to make the world dance and exhort everybody to look to the left (etc.) whilst busting some moves in the middle of their traditional panto tales.
    
The finest pantomime dame of his generation, Clive Rowe, is on sabbatical from the outlandish frocks in Hackney this year; instead of his exuberant chumminess, the man-sized slingbacks are filled by Tony Whittle and Kat B as the Ugly Sisters. Kat in particular relishes the change from his more usual best-pal casting in Susie McKenna’s pantos to drawing audience boos this time… and it doesn’t hurt to have an Ugly Sister with a facial hair problem. Rowe’s absence also means that there is unlikely to be a finer dame in London this season than Shaun Prendergast as Widow Twankey at Hammersmith, all ebullience, bonhomie, bad gags and worse dress sense. Prendergast not only works excellently on his own but also meshes well with Steven Webb as Wishy Washy, who for no very good reason is in this version a bright blue monkey, and moreover as camp as a field full of pink bell tents.
    
The Hammersmith writing team of Joel Horwood, Morgan Lloyd Malcolm and Steve Marmion (who also directs) hit the bullseye last year after a less successful first try in 2009, and Aladdin too is a thoroughly assured piece of work. Budgetary constraints mean occasionally making a virtue out of necessity, as the Spirit of the Ring walks on and offstage without any flashes or puffs of smoke, and set and costumes have a modern-cartoonish feel to them as opposed to the older-school look of Lotte Collett’s sets at Hackney. There, much of the costuming is in modern dress: Prince Charming, for instance, is a preppy figure in blazer and what Americans would call a knitted vest but Brits know as a tank top. When it counts, though, the traditional gowns and bellboy costumes are present and correct.
    
Hackney has some high-powered musical-theatre casting this year: Sophia Ragavelas as Cinders, Sophie-Louise Dann as the Fairy Godmother, Joanna Riding as the Wicked Stepmother and the stalwart Peter Straker as Baron Hardup, not to mention recordings of Sharon D Clark and Clarke Peters as the voices of the moices, sorry, mice. It’s not surprising, then, that there are so many numbers… possibly a few too many; that first half could be trimmed a little. Hammersmith’s musical choices are generally brasher: it’s pretty audacious to make your opening number a rewritten version of Cee-Lo Green’s (ahem) “Forget You”. And what they may lack in resources, the Lyric cast more than make up in oomph, with Simon Kunz in particular managing as Abanazer to be at once sinister and engagingly gormless. The two productions make a fine start on either side of London to this year’s panto season: in fruit-based catchphrases from each show, they are respectively amaze-plums and top banana.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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