Bristol is in many ways the most rural and traditional of Britain's big cities. Meanwhile Bath is a city built on promises and image, where facade is everything - a city which focuses on marketing whilst frequently paying too little attention to the product itself. Although only 14 miles apart, a cultural chasm divides the cities. This goes some way to explain why their respective theatres Royal have decided to stage the same pantomime this Christmas. These are two very different interpretations which reflect very accurately the different characters of the two cities.
Bath's Aladdin is a commercial show filled with familiar TV faces. Overall, it has a feeling of a pantomime just going through the motions, a ragbag of comedy acts and set pieces glued together with a haphazard plot.
In three inch stilettos and a micro-tunic, Jenny Powell's Aladdin is less a Principal Boy and more the well-known Peking transvestite. Teamed up with Sarah Day's Princess in her Wallis cocktail dress, the star-crossed lovers resemble a couple of girls on their way to Stringfellows.
This is in stark contrast to Bristol's far more traditional production, where Amanda Villamayor's Aladdin delivers a healthy dose of all round boyishness and thousand megawatt grins. Combined with Princess Prue Clarke's sweeping dresses and droopy femininity, this provides the contrast which is vital to remove the sapphic edge from the central love story. The biggest differences, however, lie with the baddy and the dame.
Following on his TV success as EastEnder Pete Beale, Peter Dean's Abanazar is an Eastern mystic apparently born within the sound of Bow Bells, whose recipes include "oi of noot". But for all his growling and bizarre make- up, Mr Dean's performance fails to cross the footlights. Unlike Mark Buffery in Bristol, who presents a towering demon king who is pretty damn scary (and speaks in rhyme, like all baddies should).
Meanwhile, Old Vic stalwart Chris Harris's Widow Twankey is smutty, loud, over-made-up, and appears in an ever more exotic array of oriental fashions. In Bath, Nicholas Parsons just works his way through the Spice Girls wardrobe. He also spends too much time being Nicholas Parsons. In time he may stop slipping out of character quite so often, but at the moment it is painfully clear that even star names need adequate rehearsal time.
The BOV script is punchy and littered with slapstick. It's frequently parochial, playing to Bristolians' sense of place and local chauvinism, with the biggest cheer of the night reserved for a flying model of the Clifton Suspension Bridge. In Bath the lines tend to be wooden, the jokes have been salvaged from a cracker factory reject bin, and the songs are recent pop hits stuck somewhat incongruously onto the plot. There is a feeling of complacency, as if the presence of a few TV celebrities is all that is required for a good night out. Surprisingly, the special effects and the Victorian Oriental design in Bristol's home-grown production are considerably more impressive than those in the high hype commercial offering. And there is a warmth, a naturalness and a professionalism to the Old Vic's show which had the audience hollering with delight in a way which the Bath audience never even approached.
Like all Christmas tales, there is a moral, and it is this. When pantotime comes along, do not put your faith in star names and glitz. Go for the jobbing actors and the traditional pantomime. And to keep the kids enraptured and cheering, head for the pace and goop at Bristol Old Vic rather than the latest offering from the City of Blissful Mediocrity.
Bath runs until 25 Jan. (01225 448844).
Bristol runs until 31 Jan. (0117 987 7877).Reuse content