This year’s Epstein pantomime takes us to an exotic land of magic, mystery and romance. ‘Birkenhead?’ enquires one of the characters. No, we’re in Peking for an exuberant and achingly funny version of Aladdin.
All of the cast throw themselves into the show with commendable zest and enthusiasm. The romantic leads are X Factor finalist Sean Smith as Aladdin and Atomic Kitten’s Natasha Hamilton as Princess Jasmine. They’re both excellent actors, but not surprisingly it’s their singing that really impresses. They share several showstopping duets, most notably a supercharged You Can Make Me Whole Again that brought the house down in the second half. Mark Byron’s hilariously camp, Scouse Slave of the Ring was a big hit with the audience, as was Lewis Pryor’s energetic performance as Wishy Washy, played as a Liverpool lad who’s very likeable but none too bright. Tom Burroughs has a commanding stage presence and is magnificently villainous as Abanazar. The Genie of the Lamp is Jordan Davies, a star of the reality TV show Magaluf Weekender. As Michael Chapman’s Widow Twankey – who also has a dig at his lack of acting experience – comments, you need to be an avid ITV2 viewer to know who he is, but his cheerful willingness to send himself up wins the audience over.
As in previous years, Chapman himself is at the heart of the production: the show’s writer and director, and also the best thing in it. He may be the pantomime dame, but there’s not an ounce of femininity in his vocal delivery. Political incorrectness abounds as he rattles off a series of brutally caustic one-liners in an abrasive Cockney accent, sounding like a modern day Max Miller. His many targets include his fellow actors, China, people who shop in their pyjamas and Croxteth. He tells a group of child characters they shouldn’t be alone on the streets of Peking so late at night – ‘you should be locked inside factories making clothes for Primark’. Four other children are plucked from the audience to sing Old MacDonald Had A Farm. Chapman is mostly kind to them, but he also barks out instructions, pushes them around and when they’ve finished orders them off the stage. The kids are cute but understandably confused and their reactions to Chapman’s hectoring are a highlight of the night.
There are also superbly executed dance routines from a large troupe (including several very young dancers), a live band and some entertaining special effects, including a levitating magic carpet and exploding fireworks.
But it’s the savage wit of Michael Chapman that really illuminates this production. In twelve months’ time the Epstein’s pantomime will be Peter Pan. Coincidentally – and somewhat surprisingly – a rival version will be playing across the water at New Brighton’s Floral Pavilion. I’m sure Chapman will have some choice observations to make about that in next year’s show…
**** A hard-edged panto that’s very, very funny
Aladdin continues at the Epstein Theatre, Liverpool until 8 January 2017. For more information, click HERE.