|Image Source: Epstein Theatre|
Date: December 12 2016
Location: Epstein Theatre, Liverpool, England
The world has changed a lot in 2016, what with Brexit, Donald Trump becoming US President and the imminent demise of Deal Or No Deal (hey, I love the show). However, some things will always remain the same, and fortunately one of them is the annual tradition for Christmas pantomime. Amongst the top shows on offer this winter season is Aladdin, at the Epstein Theatre.
The latest panto production at the Epstein may just be its strongest festive offering yet, as the simple story is told with the addition of interesting characters, extended dance and song routines, and a huge amount of comedy. It is that humour, and the amount of genuinely funny lines and ad-libbed situations, which made this such a treat to watch.
Aladdin tells the tale of the character with the same name (of course), played by Sean Smith, as he looks to find true love in the form of a Princess, and there just happens to be one, Princess Jasmine (Natasha Hamilton) whose arranged marriage with an unknown groom is in the process of being arranged by her mother. The two eventually meet up, fall in love, and it's clear that wedding bells will soon be ringing.
But wait! The evil Abanazar (Tom Burroughs) is after the hand of the Princess herself, mostly for her riches, and it's the magic power of a mysterious lamp which holds the key for him to potentially achieve his goal. Cue all sorts of hilarious interludes, and the frequent appearances of several supporting characters such as Widow Twankey (Michael Chapman), Wishy Washy (Lewis Pryor), the Slave of the Ring (Mark Byron) and, since this is Aladdin, the Genie (Jordan Davies).
After many variations of a similar story regardless of what the show is, the LHK Productions team seem to have realised how to make the most of its positives and how to hide its negatives, because the humour in this show is the funniest yet in an Epstein production. Widow Twankey, played by writer Michael Chapman, is her usual over-the-top and innuendo-driven self, and it's hilarious to see Twankey run down the Genie/Jordan for his perceived lack of acting skills, noting how his celebrity status is the sole reason for him to be involved. But the unsung hero is Mark Byron, another name whose fame originated from reality television; by emphasising his accent and talking like someone off the street rather than the typical dialect that his Slave of the Ring character would normally use, many of his lines got the audience laughing, and in some cases it was just from the way he was talking rather than what he was saying.
Perhaps the highlights of the show were the moments of unexpected humour: an extended version of Twelve Days Of Christmas deliberately became a car crash on stage waiting to happen, but perhaps more than even the characters intended as the song was virtually stopped at one point due to more than one of the actors actually falling behind the curtain due to the break-neck speed of the number. It was clear that they were enjoying themselves just as much as the audience were. And the penultimate (and traditional) portion of the evening where Twankey (who humorously had an adapted version of "Frankie (do you remember me?)" to accompany her on stage) invited several young children to try and sing Old McDonald ended up being a truly memorable situation, as one kid decided not to sing, another belted out his lines incredibly loud, and all had their own mannerisms and behaviours contribute to a pretty funny sing-a-long session. Even Twankey couldn't hide the laughter during some of these performances.
Although the humour was a heavy aspect of the show, and a strong one at that, the music was good too. The stand-out musical performance came from Aladdin and the Princess joining to sing Whole Again; of course, with the Princess being Atomic Kitten star Natasha Hamilton, this felt more like a mini-concert than a panto rendition, and therefore was probably the strongest musical moment ever for an Epstein panto. The settings were also well-constructed to depict the likes of a haunted cave and Twankey's Launderette, and the costumes were well-crafted, if slightly less outlandish (at least for Twankey) than in previous productions. The special effects were very good, especially for a scene involving Aladdin on a magic flying carpet. There was also a nice acknowledgement at the end for Herbert Howe, a longtime panto contributor who passed away earlier this year, as well as a touching moment to invite everyone involved to contribute towards the Save Our Katie appeal.
Some minor negatives were the slightly amateurish transitions between scenes, which meant that the curtains separating the different backgrounds were a bit messy at one point (as in, you could almost see members of the crew walking behind the set during scenes), and the dark lighting was a little too dark when you consider the younger members of the audience. Also, though no fault of the production team, certain attendees seemed to be having too much of a good time, in a sense that some adults were acting far more childish than the kids at various points. However, none of these could even come close to spoiling a really entertaining night of panto.
Aladdin is the Epstein's best pantomime show to date, and one I would give the highest recommendation to for all members of the family.
Overall Rating: 9/10 - Outstanding