Review: Aladdin at the Cambridge Arts Theatre is a magic carpet ride into a happier world
The Cambridge Arts Theatre panto has long been one of the shiniest baubles of the city’s Christmas celebrations, but this year’s feels extra special.
As Dave Murphy, the theatre’s chief exec, told the audience in a stirring pre-show address: “Covid has been blowing a gale in our faces, but we’ve stood firm, we’ve brought this place back to life – theatre is well and truly back”. Because the show, of course, must always go on.
And what a show. If the opening number, Could It Be Magic? posed a question, then the answer by the end was a resounding yes, and the entire team deserve massive credit for staging the full, all singing, all dancing, bells-and-whistles production we’ve come to expect from the Arts. In fact, aside from the masked audience, only the odd the lockdown gag – plus the absence of any children on stage – offered any clue that the show is being staged in the middle of a pandemic.
The cast are all on top of their game. Rolan Bell, returning to the Arts panto after his tour of duty in BBC One’s Our Girl, is brilliant – and fruitily camp – as the boo-hiss villain Abanazar, whose railing against ‘wokery’ could land him a slot on GB News if he’s not careful. Jak Allen-Anderson is, if anything, even camper as the Genie of the Lamp, who responds to every summons by pirouetting nimbly onstage to the Strictly Come Dancing theme like a spirit version of Craig Revel Horwood.
Megan-Hollie Robertson gives a gutsy performance as Princess Poppy, a thoroughly modern royal with six million Insta followers and an interview deal with Oprah. She is also, of course, no mere damsel in distress, but a woman with her own agency who thanks Aladdin not just for rescuing her but “giving me a voice”. Quite right, too.
Aladdin, “the handsome hero with a heart of gold”, is winningly played by Carl Au. That’s right, an actual boy playing Aladdin. I’m not sure if that means thigh-slapping principal boys – which, for any non-Brits reading, is a role traditionally played by women – are no longer a thing, but thankfully Arts Theatre legend Matt Crosby is still strapping himself into the corset and fake bosoms to play Dame. His Widow Twankey is, naturally, the star of the show, occupying a sweet spot somewhere between Christopher Biggins, Lily Savage and RuPaul if she’d seriously let herself go.
West End star Rachel Lumberg proves a fine foil for Twankey as the equally lusty Empress, and Aiesha Pease, playing the Spirit of the Ring, is the standout singer of the company, while Isaac Stanmore brings a cheeky charm to the role of the audience’s best mate, Wishy-Washy. A shout-out, too, to the terrific dance ensemble, who are on stage for much of the runtime, and never allow their energy levels to drop.
The script, by seasoned Arts veteran Al Lockhart-Morley, hits all the right beats, including a constant volley of one-liners (”I bought a fish with no insides – gutted”, “I drank 14 pints of yoghurt – I was absolutely Müllered”, etc). Some of the gags are very naughty indeed, in the bawdy music hall tradition, including a Viagra one about “getting it over the counter (if you take two)”, which of course sail harmlessly over innocent heads. And yes, regular panto visitors will be glad to know that Ye Olde Cambridge United Bra Joke (“lots of support but no cups”) is present and correct. I’d be disappointed if it wasn’t, frankly.
The songs are well chosen, from Madonna’s Hanky Panky (re-tooled for Widow Twankey, naturally) to One Direction’s Best Song Ever. (On a personal note, I felt a bit teary when they sang Together We’ll Be Okay, which took me right back to my childhood, seeing Tommy Cannon and the late Bobby Ball in panto at the Bradford Alhambra.) The biggest response of the night, though, was reserved for Aladdin’s rendition of Never Gonna Give You Up which, thanks to the Rickrolling phenomenon, proved as much of a crowd-pleaser for the kids as the mums and dads.
A full production meant the classic laundry ‘slop scene’ – as much a Cambridge Christmas highlight as Carols from King’s – was fully intact, with Crosby and Stanmore slipping, sliding and slamming themselves onto the stage in a manner even Tom Cruise would think twice about. And, of course, it wouldn’t be Aladdin without a flying carpet taking off and soaring into the air in front of our very (wide) eyes: when people talk about panto introducing children to the magic of theatre, this is what they mean. You’ll believe a man can fly.
After the couple of years we’ve all had, I can’t tell you how good it felt to step into the light and the warmth of the Arts Theatre and join Aladdin on his great adventure – where love always wins, cheats never prosper, and dreams really do come true. Even if you had your own Genie of the Lamp, you honestly couldn’t wish for a better show than this.
Aladdin is Cambridge Arts Theatre until January 9.