Paul Merton is Widow Twankey in Aladdin this Christmas
You know the Christmas season has come when the annual panto opens at New Wimbledon Theatre - and the star name on The Broadway this year is TV stalwart Paul Merton.
He is the latest celebrity to break his panto duck in Wimbledon, taking on the role of Widow Twankey in 'Aladdin'.
Although he seemed a tad nervous at the start and there was the occasional deviation from the script, he soon settled into the role to help make this year's show quite an improvement on last year's 'Jack and the Beanstalk'
He was joined by Strictly, Blue and EastEnders star Lee Ryan as Aladdin and funny man and magician Pete Firman as his brother Wishee Washee.
The obvious rapport between Firman and Merton was one of the highlights of the show and I'm sure this will only develop as the production run goes on. Both proved to be excellent improvisors, although perhaps this shouldn't be a surprise with Merton's pedigree.
The panto has all the usual bits of magic you'd expect from a traditional show. Some of it didn't seem to quite fit into the plot - but who cares when adults and children alike are having a great time?
There's the usual mention of Wimbledon's surrounding suburbs to remind us that we've not quite been transported to Peking. I sometimes think there's one year in which I won't laugh at the predictably derogratory mention of Croydon, but I just couldn't stop myself!
Merton shone at the verbal gymnastics, and when he stumbled over his lines, it just didn't matter as he's clearly a master at a quick recovery. This was true of Firman as well.
They were joined by leading ladies Linda John Pierre and Lauren Chia as The Empress and Princess Jasmine.
The main cast demonstrated their overall dexterity with a clever routine that harked back to music hall days and the 3D effects were also fun for all.
Perhaps the weakest link was Lee Ryan, who didn't seem to get the opportunity to demonstrate his talents. Some of his fans were in the audience, and they enjoyed his performance - but he wasn't the reason the show got a standing ovation.
Adam Pearce was a memorable Abanazar - the character who takes all the 'boos' from the audience - while Cassandra McCowan as Scheherazade had a great singing voice and a strong persona.
Completing the cast were Josh Donovan, Maria Crawford Clarke, Isaac Hesketh, Sarah Marie Maxwell, Jessica Oakman, Georgia Reid and Michael Stewart. There were also charming performances from the children of the Arnould School of Dance and Drama, as well as a good ensemble and excellent music accompaniment.
The show was directed by Kerry Michael, with choreography by Mitch Sebastian, with featured special effects by The Twins FX.
While the lighting and set weren't quite as garish as last year's panto, they created the appropriate atmosphere. The 3D sequences, where the genie of the lamp came to the fore, were clever and added to the story twists as the familiar plot unfolded.
'Aladdin' runs at New Wimbledon Theatre until January 6 and this top-notch panto will only get better. The run is a week shorter than last year's production, so make sure you don't miss out!
By Sue Choularton
December 13, 2018