Upon taking my seat for Creation Theatre’s production of Aladdin and the Magic Lamp, my expectations were low to say the least. Childhood memories of pantomimes replete with excruciating slapstick, ageing TV actors in drag, and ruthlessly enforced audience participation, had lent the form a hefty stigma in my mind. Thankfully Creation Theatre were able to alleviate my prejudices and, most importantly, stage an enjoyable two hours of pantomime.
The success of Aladdin and the Magical Lamp lies in its simplicity. The small but strong cast of seven are afforded roughly equal stage time and thus divided the jokes, melodrama and songs between them. Consequently, the stale parade of pantomime stereotypes such as the hero, dame, village idiot et al is avoided; instead each character is given a little freedom to develop. Refreshingly, familiar characters assume new depths: the Genie of the Lamp remains mystical but is also hilariously deadpan, the Sultan is regal but also quaintly camp and Aladdin himself begins the play as, by his own admission, “a wretch, a good-for-nothing and a murderer”. The comedy too is effective in its subtlety; time after time the melodrama is escalated by extravagant language and overblown theatricality, only to be brought sharply to Earth by a witty, deflating punch-line.
The production’s musical numbers, often used successfully to aid the run-up to a punchline, are generally successful but work best when the entire cast is involved: the Princess and Aladdin’s duet strikes a rare bum note. Both actors were flummoxed by the suddenly empty stage and sterile melody, substantiating the Sorcerer’s subsequent remark that “love is a cheap illusion”. Indeed, as is often the case, the villain’s role is the most intriguing and Timothy Allsop seizes this opportunity with aplomb. His Sorcerer dominates the beginning of Act Two as a deranged megalomaniac, expressive eyes radiating insanity.
This delectable darkness, however, was swiftly curtailed in favour of a prolonged conclusion that consists of a farcical sequence of betrothals, reconciliations and predictability. We all knew a happy ending was imminent, but surely that should have encouraged a short and sweet finale, rather than this sugary overdose? In particular, the “abject poverty” of the Sultan’s subjects, as sung about in Act One, was instantly forgotten once Aladdin had ascended the social ladder himself. In one significantly ironic blow, both genies are freed from their magical slavery whilst the wage slavery of the peasantry is perpetuated.
Perhaps pantomime is no place for a critique of the feudal system and anyone who expects to find one has clearly just completed eight weeks of his English degree. Nevertheless, transcending that boundary between maturity and simple entertainment is something that Aladdin and the Magic Lamp does well. Yet it raises an important question: who exactly does Creation Theatre think their pantomime is for? The subtlety of its characters and humour was admirable but would probably stretch a primary school-age audience too far. Conversely, whilst an adult audience would enjoy elements of the production, its status as a pantomime is surely enough to discourage a significant number from purchasing tickets in the first place. A pleasurable and unadulterated experience it certainly is, but whether it makes commercial sense is another question entirely.
Aladdin and the Magic Lamp runs till 5 January at the North Wall Arts Centre