A good panto is like a favourite supper of fish and chips, spaghetti Bolognese or Chicken Tikka Massala - you look forward to what you know and don’t appreciate anyone tinkering with the recipe. Luckily Ben Croker and Steve Edis – writers of the words and music for this year’s Chipping Norton panto – are excellent chefs and have served up all the expected ingredients to make a wholesome fun night out whilst updating the show so it's fit for 2018. The audience interactions essential to a panto are in place and the comedy set pieces delivered with smart execution. There may be no double entendres in this show for all ages but there are plenty of laughs.
This is an Aladdin with more than a passing nod to the Disney version that many of the audience will know, with a dash of Indiana Jones - so no Widow Twankey or the scallywag Wishee Washy. Instead we have café proprietress the lovable Dame Gertie – a brisk and knowing turn from Andrew Pepper - and her two sons Aladdin (David Djemal) and Sidney (Irfan Damani). I did miss the cheeky chappy that Aladdin is in the film and Sidney is more of a wannabe magician for Britain’s Got Talent than a clown and trickster, however both actors won us over with their charming performances. Delicious villainy was provided in bucket loads by Benedict Martin as Abanazar (soliciting very loud boos) and Tessa Vale was a delight as the imperious but dotty despot the Empress of Eqypt.
In a strong ensemble cast special mention must go to Anna Brook-Mitchell who doubles up as Genie of the Lamp and hapless Doris the waitress. She is an actor with a strong physical presence and good comic timing and can afford to spend even more time on aged Doris’ slow service. She is also billed to play the voice of comedy puppet Fazil the snake but due to a cold affecting her voice understudy Lorna Dennehey stepped in to play the sassy serpent. Also working hard for her weekly wage is Zelina Rebeiro (local Oxford Drama School graduate) who not only plays a very feisty Princess Jasmine, more than holding her own against her strict mother the Empress and her would-be seducer Abanazar, but also puts in a very funny cameo as the Genie of the Ring.
The cast are completed by the small but perfectly formed chorus of four, played by children aged 9 to 14. They are very well drilled and take on many different characters from palace guards to mummies with energy and confidence; the troupe I saw were a credit to this professional company. Finally, no panto is complete without the house band – there are only 2 musicians (Alex Maynard and Daniel England) but they pull out all the bells and whistles (literally) to provide an impressive musical accompaniment.
I saw the show on only the second performance of a two month run so I am sure my minor quibbles with the production will soon be smoothed out. At times the action was rushed which meant there was a lack of tension and little change of dynamic. As an audience we do want to experience genuine jeopardy as Aladdin is trapped underground or enjoy the build-up to the big Genie reveal or even get to ‘ahhh’ longer at poor Sidney failing again. It would also be great to have a couple of topical references–current affairs at the moment are full of rich pickings for a panto Dame to riff on.
The set (designer Pip Leckonby) and costumes (Emily Stuart) are fantastic and not only add to the action on stage but really complement this little Victorian gem of a space. If you have never experienced a show in Chipping Norton Theatre then the venue alone is worth the drive and this Aladdin definitely is worth the journey.