Aladdin (Richmond Theatre)

Aladdin (Richmond Theatre, until January 14th 2018)

Biggins is back! That simple statement should be enough to strike fear into all Christmas show performers and will surely tempt panto fans young and old into cleaning their magic carpets and flying off to Richmond Theatre for what must be one of the slickest, boldest, funniest and brassiest seasonal shows this year.

Just when we feared the doyen of pantomime dames had hung up his wigs and outrageous costumes for good, Christopher Biggins bounces back to play Widow Twankey with accomplished style in Aladdin and it’s a production that is so good all other genies will be padlocking themselves in their magic lamps and wishing for next Christmas.

Admirers of his panto work will know already that Biggins has a sparkling charm and is a tremendous stage presence, lighting up every scene in which he appears, but here he shows just why he is the epitome of seasoned seasonal pros, dazzling in Mike Coltman’s often breathtaking speciality costumes, and as much at ease with his fellow performers as he is with the kids who come on stage for the traditional pre-finale chat and novelty song.

It is unquestionably a star turn, but it’s not all about the Celebrity King of the Jungle, which says much about this terrific production. For the polished script (by panto veterans Jonathan Kiley and Alan McHugh), the excellence of the rest of the cast, the quality of the chorus/dancers (choreographed by Paul Robinson), the delightful young performers of Babette Langford’s Young Set, and the high standard of the orchestra (directed from keyboards by Pierce Tee) all come together to create one of those pantomimes that contains everything you could possibly wish for and will send you home with joyful smiles and warm hearts.

This is traditional panto fare with an extra touch of finesse. It is a production that knows firmly what it is offering, but never once settles for a formulaic second best on the grounds that “it’s only pantomime.” There are enough double entendres to have the adults tittering without it being too smutty for the kids, the scenery and costumes are spectacular, the singing is classy, and the jokes are funny without getting too bogged down in topicality.

In this cut above the average Christmas and New Year show, directed with flair and care by Ken Alexander, the outstanding Christopher Biggins is joined by an unlikely but very amusing Count Arthur Strong (Steve Delaney) as Emperor Ming, a wonderful opportunity to see this glorious bewildered and hapless character at his best – the Count must have added many more to his fan club after this. The careful double act Chris and Steve create is a throwback and tribute to the golden age of music hall, and there’s a very funny running gag with the Count getting increasingly irritated by a sounding gong on his every entrance.

A saucy Issy van Randwyck as Scheherazade the genie of the ring defies the usual TV personality stunt casting to give a quality performance with a twinkle. Rikki Jay is an affable, cheeky, energetic and fast-talking Wishee Washee; his comedy routine with the shopping trolley is a feat of memory and comic skill.

Bob Harms grabs the role of the wicked Abanazar with gusto and drips villainy from every pore, and his musicals background makes his nefarious delivery of “Better the devil you know” a real showstopper.

Strong newcomer A.J. Jenks is instantly likeable as Aladdin with the lovely Denquar Chupak as the object of his affections, Princess Jasmine.  The pair perform well and their duets are lovely, which means it’s a shame we really don’t see enough of them.

The delightful thing about this panto is that everyone on stage appears to be enjoying every minute of it, and this sense of fun is instantly contagious.

All the familiar ingredients of pantomime are present, but never once do even the oldest jokes seem stale, or the customary songs seem like lifeless fillers. This is a fresh and vibrant production where every moment matters, every effect counts. The genie of the lamp is surprisingly effective and the magic carpet ride is executed perfectly. The comedy quartet number (“If I were not in old Peking” sung by Christopher, Arthur, Issy and Rikki) is a masterpiece of comic timing and would not have looked out of place in the Royal Variety Show .

ATG have every reason to be pleased with their new pantomime partnership with Qdos Entertainment and if this initial outing is anything to go by, there are plenty of treats in store for the future.

Meanwhile, until well into the new year, Aladdin at Richmond provides a yardstick for professional panto, with more colour, laughs, and terrific performances than you could ever rub a magic lamp at.

David Guest

Image: Craig Sugden

(A version of this review originally appeared on The Reviews Hub