Aladdin, Lyric Hammersmith, London

Something wicked this way comes
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The Independent Culture

The roar of delight that went up when the safety curtain rose for the start of the second half was proof pretty positive that the children were having a ball at the Lyric's Aladdin. And not just the children either. The show is a co-production with the marvellous Told By An Idiot company and it's a very funny and beguiling mix of traditional panto and modern physical theatre.

Hayley Carmichael's endearingly titchy Aladdin may look like a parody of a white rapper (with her spangly reversed baseball cap and gilded trainers) once she's been enriched by the genie, but there are some routines in this piece that were going strong when Eminem's great-granddad was still a gleam in his father's eye.

The time-honoured "business" is given a mischievous twist, though, by performers who have a terrific natural rapport with the young audience. Who could fail to warm to a villain as incompetent, accident-prone and stupidly vain as Richard Katz's lean, shifty klutz of an Abanazar? "If you were really my husband's brother," declares Widow Twanky, "you'd have his birthmark..." (Abanazar takes the laundry's hot iron and agonisedly brands his right thigh) "...on his left arm."

This is a baddie who can't even properly pronounce the hero's name and is at a complete loss when the stolen lamp won't do his bidding ("I haven't got the handbook," he wails, "It was second-hand.")

After abducting the Princess ("You floss your teeth, while I slip into something a little less comfortable"), he tries to foil his foes by miniaturising the lamp and swallowing it. But he winds up with the genie stuck permanently inside him. As that being is a burly hairy Scot, Abanazar is now a walking civil war – arguing with his invisible but voluble tenant about whether they should have curry or mashed tatties for supper. It's as though Robbie Coltrane had taken up turbulent residence inside Omar Sharif.

True love triumphs in the show over narrow considerations of dynasty, with birds twittering and a host of luminous hearts throbbing whenever Carmichael's Aladdin encounters Natasha Gordon's modern, disaffected adolescent of a Princess.

The production avoids soppiness by this send-up of kitschy romance but, thanks to Carmichael, who has a Judi Dench crack in her voice and poignant spirit to spare, the relationship is a genuinely moving one. The piece manages to be knowing about its theatricality (Javier Marzan's wonderfully engaging Wishee Washee may be thick, but he's smart enough to realise he's somehow in a show) without for a moment resorting to tired-old-pro's cynicism. True, there are a few adults-only jokes (an outrageous sequence, for example, where Paul Hunter's excellent Widow Twanky is seen having a high old time perched on a washing machine during its fast spin), but nothing that destroys the entertainment's essential innocence and good humour.

I'm not going to reveal how the company stages a magical magic carpet ride, nor whether Abanazar's camel – a creature called Gorgeous (Erika Poole) who looks like a blonde lady in khaki shorts with a knapsack hump – ever gets her wish of becoming human. To find out, you'll just have to visit the best Christmas show I've seen this year.

To 12 January 2002(020-8741 2311)

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