Writer: Joyce Branagh
Director: Madeleine O’Reilly
Cast’s 2021 pantomime has so much to recommend it – notably a clever script from experienced panto hand Joyce Branagh and a cast full of accomplished performers with considerable reputations in Yorkshire – that the expectation was that it would be outstanding. A further element to admire is that every performance integrates speech with British Sign Language. Yet the production, though accomplished and enjoyable, never strikes sparks.
So many things are good that it’s difficult to say why. Perhaps the script, though ingenious, is too fiddly. Local references are shoe-horned in and it’s too tightly organised to permit a free-wheeling performance; instead, Madeleine O’Reilly’s production is well-drilled and rigidly controlled. Branagh neatly plots a tale of ten characters (twelve if you include the Chinese policemen), played by seven actors (the female actors all doubling effectively) and this works sweetly as narrative, but reduces the audience’s identification with familiar faces.
Branagh’s modifications to the Aladdin story are mainly concerned with the narrators. Scheherazade introduces proceedings and crops up with some frequency, a smart idea, though it reduces the impact of the role of the Emperor. Here it’s the Empress and Katie Erich capably plays both Scheherazade and Empress without the chance to inspire sufficient imperial terror. Alongside Scheherazade Connor Bryson acts as the alternative narrator, Lemmi the lemur, signing the story and proving a very engaging animal. He even manages to lead the singing (silently) for one verse of Iko, Iko – very good, too!
The casting of Lladel Bryant and Alyce Liburd as Aladdin and Princess Jasmine promised something special, but both give rather low-key, though thoroughly charming, performances. Liburd’s talents in particular are under-used: the appearances of Jasmine, a practical, overall-wearing mechanic type of girl, are limited by Liburd also playing Alexa (a witty addition, a sort of tech-age Genie), and Liburd hardly has a chance to get hold of a song until joining Abanazar in Rasputin halfway through the second half.
The other female double is Sophie Ellicott playing at mega-decibels Aladdin’s sister Wishee and the Genie of the Lamp, boistering well enough, but not having the chance to get all confidential with the audience. To an extent that is also true of Mark Stratton’s Widow Twankey: a panto veteran, he takes on the outrageous frocks and mighty head-dresses of the Dame for the first time with suitable wit, drollery and a lovely bit of tapping, but without much of the manic or the subversive. Ian Crowe’s Abanazar, similarly, splendidly villainous as he is, keeps the camp well in check.
Dawn Holgate’s choreography gives plenty of opportunity for the Junior Ensemble to show their acrobatic paces (there are three teams of six, presumably all equally good) and Connor Wood and Isabelle Betts go through the gestures and double takes of the Keystone Cops as well as joining the ensemble.
Oddly the programme does not list a designer: a pity, the frontcloths and backcloths are colourful and attractive and only a Costume Supervisor (Francesca Wilkinson) is listed for a vividly costumed show, Widow Twankey’s Egyptian ensemble a gem!
Runs until December 31st 2021