The lamp is lit again in Waterloo

Aladdin is back at the Old Vic for the first time since Christmas 1841
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The Independent Culture

The story of Aladdin, last staged at the Old Vic Theatre in London in the Christmas season of 1841, makes a comeback with the starry casting of Sir Ian McKellen as Widow Twankey, Maureen Lipman as Dim Sum and Roger Allam as Abanazar.

The story of Aladdin, last staged at the Old Vic Theatre in London in the Christmas season of 1841, makes a comeback with the starry casting of Sir Ian McKellen as Widow Twankey, Maureen Lipman as Dim Sum and Roger Allam as Abanazar.

Aladdin, one of the most famous tales from The Thousand and One Nights, is being staged as a tribute to the Old Vic's vaudeville past. Kevin Spacey, the theatre's artistic director, says: "Ian is one of the great actors of all time, and we are delighted to welcome him back to a theatre which he last played in nearly 40 years ago. He was ready for a fresh challenge and decided he'd like to do a pantomime, and one which is part of the Old Vic tradition."

This new version of Aladdin, written by Bille Brown, has all the popular panto ingredients, from slapstick to cross-dressing. It is light relief for Allam, who played the German chancellor Willy Brandt in Michael Frayn's political play, Democracy. In Aladdin, he plays Abanazar. Allam is a dab hand at nasty characters: he played Hitler in Trevor Nunn's Albert Speer at the National, and Macbeth for the RSC. He also played a very corrupt member of the House of Lords in the BBC television series, The Inspector Lynley Mysteries.

"It's huge fun to play Abanazar," says Allam on a rehearsal break. "When you are doing pantomime, you're not immersing yourself in anything terribly deep." Still, he has a particular kind depth that helps: "I have got a big deep voice, and that comes in useful for villains."

Pantomime is no holiday for actors. "It is hard work because - unlike, say, Democracy - there is not much of a play to support you. It should just be silly family entertainment. As a result, we are all working like slaves. We only have three weeks of rehearsals, half the amount we had for Democracy. There is so much to learn. I have still to meet the person who is going to teach me some magic for the show."

What is Allam's favourite scene? "When I throw Aladdin into the cave where the lamp is," he says. "We sing a duet - called 'Die' - in which I am leaving Aladdin [Joe McFadden] to die because he has not handed me the lamp."

This is Allam's second foray into panto. "I was in Babes in the Wood at the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow in the Eighties. I was the villain - the wicked Sheriff of Nottingham. Robbie Coltrane was Little John; Gary Oldman was Daniel the Dog. He wore a dog suit, barked and pointed at the song sheet."

Aladdin is directed by Sean Mathias and choreographed by Wayne McGregor, with costume design by Mark Bouman. The pantomime has original music by Gareth Valentine, and orchestrations by Christopher Walker. All the scenic effects, by the set designer John Napier, come out of a large Chinese box.

"It is very magical," Allam says. "You are in a strange world in pantomime, where you are allowed to step out and talk to the audience and do silly gags. Sometimes I feel like a cartoon character. You have to be believable to children and also amuse the adults."

'Aladdin', Old Vic, London, SE1 (0870 060 6628), 17 December to 23 January

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