Aladdin, The Old Vic, London

There is nothing like a dame (as played by a knight of the realm)

By Paul Taylor
Monday 20 December 2004 01:00

It was only a matter of time before Sir Ian McKellen got round to giving us his Widow Twankey. He does so now in Sean Mathias's bouncy, colourful and patchy production of Aladdin at The Old Vic.

A thorough rummage through the great actor's CV unearthed the piquant details that he has, in fact, appeared in this particular piece once before. Back in 1962, at the Arts Theatre in Ipswich, he took on the role of Tee Vee.

It doesn't sound much of a part. Presumably he sat in a corner while the others fiddled with his knob. Oops, excuse me, but the innuendoes from Bille Brown's new version of Aladdin seemed to be catching. At any rate, McKellen has now graduated to the big one - the part that separates the men from the boys. He managed to hack it with the kind of over-the-top self-delight that suggests that, for years, it has been the private fantasy of this theatrical knight to play a pantomime dame.

In curlers and scarf and with a battleaxe dame that recalled the late Ena Sharples, his Twankey first materialises enveloped in a Day-Glo funfair atrocity that she bought in the sales - "I got it for a ridiculous figure - don't encourage me,'' she begs.

There is something genuinely infectious about the relish with which McKellen throws himself into the part, modelling a succession of outrageous outfits and attempting to strike a balance between lewd double entendre and starry-eyed innocence.

If he's in seventh heaven, there are other actors who are more in their element in this mode, notably Roger Allam's superbly droll and dastardly Abanazar.

Maureen Lipman is surprisingly subdued as the gormless Dim Sum and looked as if she strayed in fromThe Wind in the Willows.

There's not enough expertise with controlling audience participation. When the beautiful cave set failed to go up in time, you expect some ad libs, not an awkward pause. But it's great to see Gandalf in drag. I think McKellen should give us his Mother Courage.

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