The casting of Doreen Tipton as the Empress of China in the Wolverhampton Grand Panto this year is a master stroke. The Black Country’s infamous ‘lazy cow’ not only strikes a blow for gender equality in a genre where men play women and women even play men … but for employment equality as well.
“I went to the job centre”, she tells us, “and they made me take this or I’d lose my benefits. I know it should have gone to a Chinese woman, but they’re not allowed to discriminate these days. Her deliciously downbeat delivery, and grumpily matter of fact attitude to life, is a carefully crafted anti-dote to the general glitz of this star-spangled show. I would have loved to have seen more of her – but she probably couldn’t be bothered.
This is a panto on the grand scale, with huge personalities making large gestures and singing big ballads. There’s even a life-sized elephant; which is so enormous Widow Twanky has had to enlarge her cat flap.
The show sets off at such a pace the cast must have been aiming at being in the pub early. And they are an all-round excellent ensemble. Lisa Riley is the surprise turn as the Slave of the Ring. Not only is she much more svelte and slim than I expected; her loud, bouncy persona is ideal for panto as she whips up the kids and puts down the grownups. She might take the micky out of ‘Strictly’, but she dances with grace and gusto and holds both stage and stalls in the palm of her hand.
Joe McElderry is a great Geordie Aladdin, with a wonderful voice and teeth to match. He has genuine charisma and more than enough boy-next-door-ness to win over the audience. His mother wears yellow Marigolds on her mitts and a washing machine on her head. Ian Adams has a remarkably good pair of pins for a bloke. He’s Titania Twankey…the with stress on the first syllable.
He’s the king pin of three excellent panto routines. When he and Wishy Washy (a lively, larger than life Adam C Booth) escape shrunken from their Hotpoint, the illusion is terrific. With tiny bodies and squeaky voices, they dive into a double act so funny, it had me needing the services of a laundry.
They also do a calculatedly clever ‘Who’, ‘What’, ‘I don’t know’ quick-fire wordplay scene that must have taken a lot of learning. And they are joined by other characters to re-enact a legendary Crazy Gang routine which dates back to the 50s. It’s a chorus number, sung whilst wielding a policeman’s truncheon, a cricket bat, a feather duster and boxing gloves. In the original, the singers keep missing each other. This has been updated. At the end, an exhausted Widow Twankey breathlessly explains that they do all this twice a day, six days a week. Awwww!
The kiddies chorus is cute and exceptionally well drilled and the primary pastel sets are impressive. But the magic happens when it goes dark. Stefan Pejic’s Abanazar has eerie green laser beams flashing from his finger tips and Aladdin’s magic carpet is so magical it hovers right out over the audience. And then it does something that completely defies gravity…
If you’re looking for subtly and finesse, you’re at the wrong Panto. This Aladdin in big, brash and bouncy. And like Aladdin’s lamp, it’s perfectly polished.
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