Panto Review: Three wishes for Aladdin

The first law of panto is that it must contain a former cast-member from either TV's Hi-de-Hi! or TV's 'Allo, 'Allo. The production of Aladdin at the Hackney Empire hits the jackpot: it's got one of each.

It's also got what all the best pantos have - an ability to juggle elements which appeal both to children and adults. There is nothing quite like the sight of a child clasping her mouth in a vain attempt to suppress her excitement as the curtain goes up.

The girl in front of me on Thursday night spent the next two-and-a-half hours in a state of frenzy that made the the fans at Gladiators look restrained in comparison. In between booing and cheering she leapt around like an acrobatic wicket-keeper catching sweeties hurled out by the cast, whooped at Widow Twankee's (Barry Howard) striptease, wagged her giant foam finger at the wicked Abanazar (John D Collins), and emitted many a bellowed "oh yes it is".

But the adults had no need to feel neglected. Dennis Waterman, whose first entrance as Wishee Washee was accompanied by the dulcet tones of the theme from The Sweeney, provided a string of jokes for the benefit of those of us old enough to remember the first time that series was broadcast.

As a courtier intervened to try to prevent the marriage of the Princess (Jayne Collins, from TV's Baywatch) to Wishee Washee's brother, Aladdin (Patti Boulaye), Waterman turned on him and shouted "Shut it" in his best Detective Sergeant Carter voice. The phrase - resurrected by a recent hommage in a car commercial - was greeted with knowing applause.

Later, the Emperor (Tim Willis) said to Wishee Washee, "I'm sure I know your face from somewhere". Pointing at the Emperor's TV aeriel-style hat, Waterman replied: "do you mean you can get Sky on that?"

As is always the case in panto these days, the script relied too heavily on unimaginative references to television and pop. But the proof that director/adaptor John David had pitched his production at just the right level came in a scene near the end where Wishee Washee called six children on stage individually to sing a verse of "Old MacDonald". The children in the audience loved seeing their peers squirm, while the adults just got high on the "aah" factor.

The recent Channel 4 series, Pantoland, showed the pyrotechnical lengths to which some productions will now go in order to dazzle the audience. The Hackney Empire's resolutely un-ritzy production demonstrated that you don't have to reconstruct the Seven Wonders of the World to grip children. The energy of the cast is far more important than the expense of the set. Oh yes it is.

Hackney Empire, London E8 (0181-985 2424). Until 4 Jan.

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