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Review: Aladdin at the Cambridge Arts Theatre

With a hero who favours a flying carpet over a flying police box, it’s a surprise to hear the grinding engines of Doctor Who’s TARDIS making an appearance in Cambridge Arts Theatre’s latest festive spectacular.

The cast of Aladdin (5898946)
The cast of Aladdin (5898946)

But it’s a highly appropriate cameo, as this production of Aladdin is pure theatrical time travel – one that takes us from Old Peking via the Victorian music hall to the modern world of Fortnite, Instagram and (but of course) Brexit.

It’s a show that enthusiastically embraces every well-loved tradition in the panto playbook, while throwing in enough contemporary gags and pop culture references to ensure it feels fresh, modern and just the right side of ironic.

Al Morley’s script hits all the beats you’d expect (oh yes it does, etc) but retools many of them for a 2018 audience. So we get the cast doing The Floss and Baby Shark (ask your kids), while the musical numbers mix evergreen classics with Carly Rae Jepsen’s Call Me Maybe and – a canny move this – choice selections from The Greatest Showman.

Star billing this year goes to Wayne Sleep, who’s become something of a panto veteran since hanging up his tights with the Royal Ballet. He’s clearly enjoying himself in the boo-hiss role of the wicked Abanazar and, at 70, proves he’s still got the moves, pirouetting across the stage and leading a razzle-dazzle, jazz-hands tap routine with the energy of a man half his age. (Well you don’t hire Wayne Sleep just to have him standing around twiddling his moustache, do you?)

Liza Goddard – such a big TV star back in the day, there’s even a small museum dedicated to her in Downham Market – is another great British panto treasure, and here her Empress of Peking is memorably introduced as “First of Her Name, the Unburnt, Queen of the Andals and the First Men, Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea, Breaker of Chains, and Mother of Dragons.” Daenerys Targaryen, watch your back.

Holly Easterbook has carved out a good niche for herself in recent years as Cambridge’s go-to principal boy, and while her Aladdin might be a “pure hearted”, innocent young lad, she plays him with a delightfully cheeky wink.

As Princess Waterlilly, West End star Suzie Mathers brings the right balance of winsome charm and plucky inner steel (amazing voice, too), while Andy Abraham (aka “The X Factor’s singing binman” – (c) every tabloid ever) and Rosalind James bring a blast of funk and soul to the party as the Genie of the Lamp and the Spirit of the Ring.

Aladdin pantomime. Picture: Tony Meehan
Aladdin pantomime. Picture: Tony Meehan

The stand-out stars of the show, though – certainly as far as the kids in the audience are concerned – are Matt Crosby, Max Fulham and Gordon the Monkey. For someone who only sat his A-levels this summer, ventriloquist Fulham displays the comic timing and natural warmth of a seasoned pro – as, for that matter, does his simian pal Gordon. It’s an idea that only seems obvious in retrospect, but **of course** all pantomimes should have a comedy puppet. I demand one every year from now on, please.

As for Crosby, this is his 14th Cambridge panto, and his sixth as Dame, and he now owns the Arts Theatre stage as assuredly as Christopher Biggins did back in the 80s and 90s. His Widow Twankey makes her entrance looking like an unholy cross between Lily Savage and RuPaul, before stripping down to a glittery catsuit number for a performance of Dancing Queen that Bjorn Again – performing just across the road at the Corn Exchange on Tuesday – would have found hard to top.

Crosby throws himself into every performance with gusto – literally so, during the legendary “slop scene”, when he always seems one pratfall away from a visit to the x-ray department – artfully walking the fine line between celebration and send-up. He excels at that Les Dawson trick of suggesting there must be an easier way to make a living, even though you know there’s nowhere else on Earth he’d rather be.

Many of the jokes fall into the so-bad-they’re good category (random example: “I stayed up all night trying to work out where the sun was, then it dawned in me”), and there’s the usual mix of topical and local gags, with catty digs at everything from Brexit to Cambridge North Station and the City Ambassadors scheme. If I had to pick one comedy highlight, though, it would be Crosby, Fulham and Gordon’s hilarious wrong-key rendition of Bring Him Home from Les Mis (not a show that’s widely known for its laughs).

Sleep also proves himself a good sport as the butt of endless jokes about his diminutive stature: over the course of the show, he’s described as everything from “a little pipsqueak” and a “teeny-tiny twinkletoes” to “a pint-sized Jacob Rees-Mogg”, while Widow Twankey entreats him to “hold me closer, Tiny Dancer”.

Aladdin pantomime. Picture: Tony Meehan
Aladdin pantomime. Picture: Tony Meehan

He’s not the only tiny dancer on stage, either: the 20 local kids who make up Team Wishy and Team Washy acquit themselves brilliantly, sheer joy beaming out from every face.

The production is a sumptuous visual spectacle, director Phil Clark taking advantage of the eastern setting to fill the stage with coloured silks, fluttering fans and a Chinese dragon, while good old-fashioned stage trickery allows the Genie to appear in a puff of smoke, and Aladdin to ride his flying carpet up and out over the orchestra pit.

After more than two hours of music, laughter and infectious silliness, the curtain comes down on Aladdin to the sound of the cast, giving it their best Hugh Jackman, singing “this is the greatest show”. You’ll get no argument from me on that score.

Runs until January 6 – see cambridgeartstheatre.com

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