Southwark Playhouse, London SE1/Civic Centre, London SE15
Opened ?? December, 1996

The Southwark Playhouse, a venue which has consistently punched above its weight, celebrated its temporary closure for Lottery-funded refurbishment with an exuberant panto production (now running until New Year at the Civic on the Old Kent Road). To call this Aladdin cheap and cheerful is absolutely not to damn it with faint praise: the set may be composed of cartoon cut-outs and the flying carpet an old dog-blanket, but every constraint is turned into a virtue by director Patricia Doyle and her irrepressible company.

Neville Robinson is the least ebullient performer as Aladdin himself, but panto protagonists are largely ciphers in any case, and Robinson at least gets to duet on "It Must Be Love", arranged in note-perfect Madness fashion by John Jansson and his versatile computer orchestras, who needs them? The Playhouse's artistic director Mehmet Ergen parodies himself wickedly as the Genie of the Lamp and doubles as a frantically alliterative Grand Vizier; Rob Inglis does his best Joss Ackland impression as the evil Abanazzar, the major disappointment of his performance being that an adult audience took far too long to warm up into booing and hissing mode.

Robert Ralph's Widow Twankey is less shall we say? buxom than many pantomime dames, but he works the audience with panache, picking a specific punter as the object of his lascivious intentions and sustaining the gag throughout the show. Rebecca Deren plays the Slave of the Ring as a sort of fairy god-daughter of Patricia Routledge, and also makes an implausibly funky panto dog.

The jewel in the company's paste crown, however, is Omid Djalili as Wishee Washee. Djalili, probably best known for his solo comedy show Short Fat Kebab-Shop Owner's Son, plays Wishee as a half-Arab, half-Trinidadian who is perversely at home in the pantomime hybrid of south-east London and old Peking; clad in joggers and back-to-front silver lamé baseball cap, asking the audience "Naah'ahmean?" nineteen to the dozen and looking theatrically embarrassed at the more excruciating puns he is forced to come out with, he is every bit as ridiculous as necessary.

The score, ranging from Bizet to "The Deadwood Stage" by way of original numbers by Jansson, complements the show's smart blend of tradition and contemporaneity, which proves that pizzazz is not dependent on budget.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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