Review: Aladdin, Oakengates Theatre@The Place
Benidorm star Asa Elliott took centre stage as this year's panto Aladdin – complete with magic carpets, an old lamp and a genie – opened in Telford.
With council cutbacks being felt across the board, there has been a distinct lack of TV "names" among the cast for pantomimes at Oakengates Theatre over the past couple of years.
You probably have to go back to 2009, when then Emmerdale actress Kay Purcell played the Wicked Queen in Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, to find the last one.
Not that it has suffered for it, with the shows since getting rave reviews and consistently good audience numbers.
A lot of that was down to the comic capering of madcap duo Francis and Wheatley, so there was genuine interest as to how this year's offering would shape up without them in the line-up.
Theatre bosses have been quietly confident and excited ahead of the curtain coming up. There is a general feeling among staff that in Elliott, who plays Aladdin, they have the best vocalist to ever take the stage at The Place.
A bold claim – but few will argue after seeing the talented 27-year-old belt out his own version of Nessun Dorma, made famous by tenor Luciano Pavarotti in the 1990s, just before his wedding to Princess Jasmine. It genuinely made the hairs on the back of the neck stand on end.
Elliott plays the resident singer in Neptune's Bar in the hit ITV sitcom and will soon be on our screens again, having just returned from filming series six on location in the Costa Blanca.
He put in a powerful performance to justify spending the extra money in bringing him in, and Jade Chaston was a good foil alongside him as Jasmine.
There seemed genuine chemistry between the pair, and the songs they sung together were very well performed.
You have to have a love story and music in a panto – but let's face it, the most important thing is the laughs.
And if anyone was worried about the hole left by Francis and Wheatley, they needn't have been. Enter pro comic Phil Butler from stage right. The bald funnyman was given the big boots to fill and handed the role of Aladdin's brother Wishee Washee.
But he hasn't headlined all the big comedy clubs for nothing – and he proves it here with a superb and versatile display.
We see him juggling, doing magic tricks, a spot of ventriloquism, bantering with the audience, making animals from balloons and squeezing into a washing machine.
Of course it would be wrong to give Butler all the credit for the laughs in Aladdin, for he has good support.
Midlands actor and stand-up Barry North takes on the role of pantomime dame Widow Twankey and takes to the stage in an array of weird and wacky outfits throughout the show. His (or her?) most memorable scene is a musical number where the dame's man-made "assets" take on a life of their own but again it is a strong performance throughout.
Ian Billings is again director of the show and again on the stage, this time as Jasmine's father Emperor Chop Suey.
He is a popular figure here because he puts on good shows and always does well, and sings at the start of dreaming of finding the magical land . . . of Telford.
Laughs and love are all well and good, but it wouldn't be a pantomime without a good old-fashioned baddie to boo. In Aladdin it is the evil magician Abanazar, who plots to get Aladdin to steal the lamp he needs for untold wealth and power. David Redgrave takes on the role and is a convincing villain, while honourable mentions must also go to Felicity Butler (Slave of the Ring) and Christopher Painter (Genie).
The only real criticism is the pacing of the show – the first section is an hour and a half long, with the second only around 45 minutes. That first half could be too long without a break for some youngsters.
But all in all, this is another excellent offering and well worth seeing.
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