A marvelous Christmas present arrived at the Churchill Theatre in Bromley in the shape of Christopher Biggins. TV presenters and ex boy/girl band members are all very well, but a proper panto deserves a proper panto star, which is what Biggins undoubtedly is.
His is a twinkly presence as Widow Twankey, appearing in a series of costumes and wigs ranging from the extravagant to the bizarre. He is effortlessly at ease with the audience. Indeed his first ‘scene’ is not really part of the show, just an informal chat identifying school groups, brownies and those celebrating birthdays. Throughout the show he totters about the stage and is both hilarious and brings a little vulnerability to the part.
His comedy side kicks are Rikki Jay as Wishee and Max Fulham as Washee, taking what is usually a single part and giving us two comics. Rikki Jay is the official comic, perhaps a little old school, but armed with all the usual jokes and clearly a highly experienced performer who knows exactly how to land a line and control the audience. Max Fulham is a hugely talented ventriloquist, giving life to his monkey Gordon, a delightfully cute but knowing character and, even more impressively, a pedal bin (whose mum is a wheelie bin and whose dad is a skip!). The three leads seem to enjoy each others’ performances. And despite the tendency in panto to include carefully rehearsed fluffs and corpsing, I think we saw a couple of genuine moments, especially in the ‘short sleeved shirt, not a long sleeved shirt’ sketch.
As Aladdin, Yazdan Qafouri comes to us from a stint in the Take That musical The Band. He looks the part, moves well and is a great singer. He and Emily Hawgood as Princess Jasmine have perhaps the toughest job because as the main leads of the story they have to carry the plot but have little else to do apart from sing a few songs. But they both manage to convey some passion and spark, both for their characters and each other. Indeed both Hawgood and Emily Beth Harrington (Scheherazade) play strong women who know what they want and how to get it.
In terms of story, those more familiar with the Disney version, will find two problems. First, that it takes a long while to get going and second, when it does and the genie finally appears, he’s not the wise cracking bundle of charisma that Robin Williams invented, but an oversize puppet thrust from the wings on a big stick.
Head baddie is Ryan O’Gorman as ‘have a banana’ Abanazar. He’s just frightening enough for the younger children in the packed audience and wins my vote for a great opening to the second act with his performance of You Know My Name, the Bond song from Casino Royale.
A special mention to The Twins FX who provide the special effect of the flying carpet, which is just captivating. And to the children from Laura Bruce Dance Academy who make a lovely addition to the big dance numbers and provide great support to the talented adult ensemble. Also to the band in the pit. Although with some exceptions I wasn’t wowed by the song choices, it really makes a difference to have a live band and they sound just great.