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Aladdin/Arabian Nights

Over-precious storytelling is trumped by a proper panto

New Wimbledon Theatre, London SW19
Arabian Nights
RSC, Stratford-upon-Avon

The cast of this year's Wimbledon panto sounded too good to be true and - guess what? - it was. Pamela Anderson and Paul O'Grady may be both appearing in Aladdin, but only in a kind of relay as Genie of the Lamp. On press night Ruby Wax took the part, and between Pammy and Paul it will be Anita Dobson.

The London Evening Standard, God preserve, suggested that Pam had cut her run down to a minimum and had yet to arrive in England - let alone to a rehearsal. But never mind that. Anderson just handed herself on a plate as a target for Ruby Wax, who played the part as an American diva with no interest in British pantomimic tradition (this part of the characterisation should prove no stretch for CJ from, remind me, was it Baywatch or The West Wing?).

After her flying entrance, Wax had to be unstrapped from her safety harness by a stage hand. Later she was dragged on stage while booking her restaurant reservation. And what, she demanded, was it with Brian Blessed's voice? She couldn't understand a word; it was just boom, boom, boom.

Blessed, as Abanazar, started a little problematically by ticking off a member of the audience for their using their phone or camera (or possibly camera-phone). "I'll turn you into a prawn cocktail, and that's just for starters," he said; or that might have been a line from Paul Thornley's excellent Wishee Washee (catchphrase "It's sadder than that" - and he wasn't even talking about his jokes) or Sam Bradshaw's acrobatic PC Pong. It was dark. I couldn't make notes. It could have been any of them.

In any case, the company was soon coming together like a well-oiled double entendre, with Jonathan D Ellis making up in grandeur and costumes what he lacked in years and girth as Widow Twankey, and the lithe Djalenga Scott quite exceptional as a Brazilian-accented Slave of the Ring, proving that beauty and high kicks need not stop you being very funny.

Starring as ever in his own one-man play, Blessed even took it upon himself to recite "Kubla Khan". "Shakespearean Actor," he concluded. Part of the fun of panto is to see the industry's more serious thesps brought low, and Blessed strode around a stage littered with references to Superdrug, New Look, TomTom and the local shopping centre. I was particularly pleased to see Jedward rewarded with a pastiche - if you can pastiche a pastiche - of their "Ghostbusters" routine from The X Factor.

Directed by Ian Talbot, who selflessly underplays the part of Ian Talbot, this is a great panto, lacking only in sufficient topical references to bankers. But with tickets costing up to £29, perhaps the company can't risk offending its potential audience.

“Aladdin" is one of the tales added to The Thousand and One Nights by the French scholar Antoine Galland in the early 1700s, possibly
to get the numbers up. It does not make it into Dominic Cooke's revival of his 1998 stage adaptation, Arabian Nights. Flowering from an almost Shakespearean bare stage, this is a magical evening of mime, puppetry and ensemble storytelling that respects the true traditions of the tales, in the interests of authenticity - even, for example, renaming Sinbad "Es-Sindibad". I, of course, hated it.

It is one of those evenings that work only because the company, which is determined to be enchanting, is playing to an audience determined to be enchanted. You get five tales for your money and the character of Shahrazad as a framing device. Some certainly work better than others. I quite enjoyed the story of the wife who wouldn't eat, for example, until Adura Onashile's heavily workshopped number as a dog. The story of how Abu Hassan broke wind never completely fails, but it got a bigger laugh onstage from Silas Carson's pectorally impressive King than it did from the children in the stalls.

The acting throughout was so precious and wide-eyed that the stories were as patronised as the audience. Only once did anyone speak like a real person. And that was Daniel Cerqueira as the whingeing Head Chef. For a play with so many corpses being flung around and eaten, Arabian Nights was a bloodless affair, although probably an edifying one, which is not a compliment you could throw in the direction of Wimbledon.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer for the Times.

Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.

This article first appeared in the 21 December 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Special