THEY say the old jokes are the best, and Mark Blackham, who is now surely one of the area’s finest amateur dames, certainly did his history homework when he took on one of the great dame roles, Widow Twankey, in Shaftesbury Arts Centre’s Aladdin, which continues to Saturday 1st February.
For his first scene, in the traditional widow’s rueful recollection of her previous husband(s), he researched what is said to be the oldest recorded pantomime joke. It involves poisoned mushrooms and a frying pan. I won’t spoil it.
A truly magnificent figure – stately as a galleon, as the late Joyce Grenfell would have put it – Blackham’s Chinese laundry-woman is resourceful and feisty, sharp-witted and wickedly quick to ad lib and improvise at the expense of hapless audience members, musicians or fellow actors.
He is ably matched by the hilarious Wishee Washee of James White, a leggy Jack Sprat to the larger than life Widow Twankey, and a versatile actor, singer and musician.
One of many original and entertaining routines is the invitation to the audience to tell them the opening song of the original Live Aid concert – in no time, and apparently unrehearsed (not sure about that) widow and son were Rockin’ All Over The World.
The pantomime is a John Morley script but cast and director Barbara Arnold have injected lots of local and topical references (an aside from the dame about secret Shaftesbury Town Council meetings raised a loud laugh) and there are several sparky new routines as well as the tried and tested favourites such as the magically frozen police and royal household moved like puppets so that they knock each other down like a house of cards as they come back to life, and the mummy haunting in the Pyramid scene.
One of the best new routines is the Imperial Police Choir and the Emperor (Jerome Swan) and bossy boots Empress (Anita Johnson) singing She’ll Be Coming Round The Mountain, one after another being voted off for singing flat and thrown down the mountainside.
The music is a splendid mix of classical, music hall and panto favourites and pop songs and the singing is excellent.
Abbie Riddell is a properly thigh-slapping Aladdin, cheeky and cocky as the story demands.
Philip Elsworth is a fearsome Abanazar; Alex Chase is suitably creepy as the ambitious Grand Vizier, Katy Darragh charming as the pretty Princess Say Wen, Robert Ralph engagingly fey as the Genie of the Lamp and Grace MacDonald is a vivacious Spirit of the Ring.
Sophia Wilson-Weaver, Janine Rutter and Jade Hall have a great deal of fun, complete with blue flashing light-topped helmets, as the incompetent Chinese policemen Bamboo, Typhoo and YooHoo.
Congratulations to the whole company – on and back stage – for a colourful, funny and thoroughly enjoyable magic carpet ride to panto-land! FC