Sunday, December 17, 2017

The Spectacular Aladdin: pantomime, but not like you’ve ever seen it before! (SSE Arena until 27 December)

With only 18 months between inception and the opening night, planning a brand new show using a team of largely local creatives to stage an arena pantomime for the first time in Belfast is a remarkable achievement. Joe Rea and Martin Lynch have shown incredible ambition to pull this off.

Last night’s performance of The Spectacular Aladdin was loud, brash, full of movement, and it seemed to delight many of the youngest members of the audience who could sing along to S Club 7 anthems and dance Gangnam style in the aisles.

It was definitely pantomime, but not as we know it!

The storyline followed the familiar tale of young Aladdin (played by Jake Carter) defying ‘pain of death’ to gaze upon Princess Jasmine (Nadia Forde). His Mum, Widow Twankie (Chris Robinson) runs the local laundry. The evil Abanazer (Rhydian) is on the hunt for Aladdin, believing that he can provide him with a magic lamp to make him rich. Add to this Wishie Washie (Christina Nelson, who inducts the audience into her gang), a Police Chief with a bushy moustache (Marty Maguire), the Empress mother of the princess (Nuala McKeever) along with the Slave of the Ring (Naomi Rocke) and The Genie (Ross Anderson-Doherty).

Packed into the front third of the SSE Arena, the venue presents its own challenges and opportunities. The stage is incredibly wide and director Dan Gordon has done well to fill it with a relatively small cadre of actors, dancers and child performers that bring the action as close as possible to the tiered seating.

At regular intervals cast members paraded through the wide aisles in the ground floor seated area in front of the stage, and at one point the Genie of the Lamp appeared over my left shoulder in row Q to sing a long distance duet with the Slave of the Ring about 40m away on stage!

It’s a strong cast, with Rhydian stepping comfortably into the shoes of Abanazer though it was only in the second half that he got the boos his malicious character deserved. It shouldn’t have been any surprise that Irish pop artist Jake Carter had a great voice (and played guitar on stage for a quick cover of Galway Girl), but he also played Aladdin with a confidence that belied his lack of theatre experience. Nadia Forde couldn’t quite compete with her heart throb’s dulcet tones.

The job of audience participation fell to Widow Twankie and Wishie Washie. Pantomime dame Chris Robinson persevered with his scripted jokes, innuendo and ad libbing and was much more confident and rewarded with audience reaction after the interval. Human dynamo Christina Nelson never stopped moving and delivered a relentlessly energetic and quick-witted performance the whole time she was on stage.

Naomi Rocke as Slave of the Ring carried a lot of the show’s narration, with lots of flourish-ridden poetic lines, and her duets with Ross Anderson-Doherty were amongst my favourite moments from the show. Nuala McKeever’s wit was underused in her small role as Empress.

Other than a few large rotating pieces of set, projections against the back wall of the stage replaced traditional flown backdrops to place each scene in context. Animation was employed successfully, often synchronised with lighting effects, to increase the sense of drama. While the width and height of the SSE Arena could allow performers to be flown in and out on wires, Aladdin’s ‘flying carpet’ relied this year on more basic trickery. There were lots of sound effects to cartoonify the on-stage action and a live band of five accompanied throughout.

The first act of the pantomime ended with a big song – Reach for the Stars – but there was a lack of jeopardy to carry the plot into the interval: for a minute I thought that the show was over and reached into my pocket to fish out the car park ticket. There were gentle nods to the sponsors throughout (though BBC Radio Ulster’s Stephen Nolan gets more mentions than Q Radio’s Stephen Clements) and eternal favourites like The Time Warp and a Twelve Days of Christmas skit (complete with Super Soaker squirting) are woven into the show.

The size of the auditorium dents the precision of some performances. While the dialogue was quite clear, much of the sung lyrics were lost in the echoey and muffled sound. (It’s a problem I don’t remember from musical On Eagle’s Wing when it played in the Odyssey back in 2004.) Seated much further away from the action than any other stage in Belfast, I leant forward to squint at the characters on stage. Despite Susan Scott’s bold and glittery costumes helping to make the cast stand out, follow-spots were only used sporadically and at times it felt like some of the action was taking place in relative gloom, particularly when characters moved away from the centre of the stage.

While it’s popular to complain about noisy sweet wrappers in theatres, the concession stands remaining open during the performance (just as they would do during an ice hockey match) created the most disturbance with a constant stream of people in our row squeezing past our legs to go out for more fizzy drink, followed up by a run to the toilet.

Taking a pantomime out of the theatre and into a larger, more open arena was a high risk move. The energy of the performance on Saturday night compensated for a lot of the issues caused by the novel venue. I left the SSE Arena a little bewildered about what I had just witnessed, but satisfied that it was both spectacular and a pantomime.

M & J Pantos seemed to be learning to walk before they ran in their first year of operation with relatively straightforward staging and no pyrotechnics. The team plan to return next Christmas with Cinderella and if they build upon this year’s success and learn lessons from their inaugural run, their annual pantomime may present more established competitors (admittedly with more seats during longer runs) with a challenge to improve their offering.

The Spectacular Aladdin continues in The SSE Arena until Wednesday 27 December.

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