Theatre review: New lamps for old

LEGAL NOTE: Please do not publish articles about the alleged dangers of aspartame without contacting the legal department and the aspartame information website

Toby O'Connor Morse



THIS IS the time of year when actors, suffixed by the title of the current hot television property, stagger into the floodlights to test their rusty theatre skills. But if you were worried that traditional pantomime had been relegated to the village hall, be cheered to know that there is one corner of the land still uncontaminated by the mediocrity of commercialism, where jobbing actors demonstrate their mastery of stagecraft without relying on cheap gimmicks and cheaper fame.

Salisbury Playhouse's Aladdin is traditional to the tips of its turned- up shoes, refusing to rely on lavish effects or topical trivialities. There is little here that would not have been familiar - and entertaining - to an audience a century ago. Some things (such as moonlight and love songs) are never out of date, and this truly traditional entertainment has the Playstation generation on the edge of its seats screaming with delight.

The composer Kate Edgar's tunes lean heavily on past musical styles, particularly the musical's heyday of the Twenties and Thirties. Musically speaking, this verges on "Beansprout Salad Days", but is all the more appealing for it. Edgar's experience on Return to the Forbidden Planet is evidenced in her cull from the Fifties and before, producing a programme of new yet comfortingly familiar foot-tappers.

The cast also lend a contemporary edge to the characters. Rachel Matthews's Princess replaces the usual aspartame-flavoured principal girl, all drooping femininity and coy downward glances, with a tough cookie who's gagging for it. Dale Superville's blue-romper-suited Genie of the Lamp crosses the frenetic india-rubber convolutions of Jim Carrey's Joker with the chaotic energy of the Things in Dr Seuss's The Cat in the Hat. Meanwhile, Simon Egerton sweeps all before his melodramatic cloak as the baddest baddy of them all, Abanazar, a refined and eminently hissable wizard with a strong feel of Laurence Olivier about him. However, this production's strength lies partly in the power of the ensemble. Another reviewer on another night could lavish equal praise on three other actors. Shining through Colin Wakefield's script and Edgar's direction is an intelligence that has considered the child's-eye view, including enough gags aimed at the shortest-trousered audience members to prevent their attention from wandering. There is constant interaction across the footlights, and an ample smattering of well managed and eagerly contributed audience participation. It takes a slightly ironic sense of humour to make one of the biggest audience shout-outs the word "Mummy"; oh, how they can bellow that!

The final test of any pantomime is its ability to appeal to a vast age range. From engrossed four-year-olds through cheering teenagers to smiling adults, Salisbury's Aladdin appears to enrapture everyone. It's rare that any production genuinely deserves the title of "a show for all the family". But this does.

To 16 January (01722 320333)