Monday, 15 December 2014


Read reviews of three Northern Ireland pantomimes - a colourful, charming adventure, a "most amoosing" feast of fun, and a novel, playfully entertaining journey

ALADDIN (Grand Opera House, Belfast)

A curtain cast in glitter rests upon the eyes of a buzzing, chattering, excitable audience of all ages as John "May McFettridge" Linehan's 25th appearance in the Grand Opera House Christmas pantomime begins.

Accompanied by the likes of former Steps singer Faye Tozer, world renowned ventriloquist Jimmy Tamley and local actress Jayne "Sweeney Todd" Wisener, Aladdin promises a colourful cascade of gaudy theatricality for the whole family. On that count, it doesn't disappoint.

Of course, it's a nonsensical, anachronistic stew. How can it not be? But it is a rather enjoyable one. It opens on a perfect note, with self-titled "chosen one" Aladdin, played by Aaron Hayes Rodgers, leading a superbly choreographed take on Pharrell Williams' "Happy". Energetic, lively, vibrant and vivid, it's the ideal door opener for McFettridge to pull out all the stops on this occasion - his occasion.

Cheap and local situational humour of the verbal and physical kind are tossed into a casserole of sometimes charming and sometimes catastrophic charades, played to the hilt by McFettridge and her, or his, animatedly affable ensemble.

Predominantly doused in fluorescent light, and surrounded by commendably detailed set design, the cast and chorus pack in as much lightly lateral and all-too-obviously literal banter that the framework of the classic Aladdin story allows, some of it raising more laughs than others. This version of Aladdin is ultimately at its best when its stars are given the freedom to show off their not inconsiderable skills, which is relatively frequently.

Jimmy Tamley and his puppets are a hoot, while as enchantress Scheherazade, Faye Tozer keeps you on your toes, alternately pleasing with her engaging expressions and powerful pipes.

On stage, Tozer is a perfect counterpoint to Earl Carpenter's evil Abanazar. Like Ralph Fiennes or Alan Rickman with a clownish bent, Carpenter is intimidating yet inept, a true pantomime villain that the children can really enjoy booing or hissing at.

And while Carpenter and Tozer somewhat overshadow the antics of Aaron Hayes Rodgers' title character and Jayne Wisener's Princess Jasmine, Hayes Rodgers' schoolboyish enthusiasm and Wisener's sweetly mellow perkiness are strong enough to win the audience over.

Amidst all the comedy and choreography, there's also room for two more marvellous technical visuals - the sight of Aladdin "soaring into the air" on a magic carpet, and an animatronic King Kong-esque figure that leads to a highly amusing sketch involving apes and bananas. It's a worthy celebration for May McFettridge, and a pleasing reminder that all that's glitter can be some kind of gold in the right company and with the right personnel.

(The original version of this review appeared in the Belfast Telegraph on Wednesday December 3, 2014. It can be read here.)

JACK AND THE BEANSTALK (Millennium Forum, Derry-Londonderry)

"Sit back, clap your hands, stamp your feet and let the show begin." So proclaims Panto Dame William Caulfield as the hitherto mild-mannered Derry-Londonderry audience prepare to be sucked into Jack And The Beanstalk, a passionately performed feast of fun and frolics which does not fail to impress.

The tempo is steady and true as Good Fairy Rose Petal, played by Orla Mullan, and Evil Flesh Creep, played by standout performer Keith Lynch, narrate the prologue in comic verse as a prelude to the first of many popular songs seamlessly integrated into this sketch show, love story and fairy tale rolled into one.

This tale of evil giant Blunderbore and hero Jack's quest to bring him down in the land of a bumbling king, a sweet princess, a snidely, snooty, buffoonish villain and a loveable cow named Daisy, is showered in a series of cracking choreography and charming comedy. The duets are strong and clear, not a bum note is hit during the dances, and Caulfield forms a good dynamic with everyone in the Forum, particularly Gerard McCabe's Silly Billy.

The sets are cartoonish and colourful, giving the feeling of being enveloped in a hyperactive comic book. Naturally, the faithfulness to the story means a little sap, but the overall tone is so winning that this is more than forgiveable.

And yes, the presence of the costumed cow is most amoosing and the cast milk it. With its experienced talent, winningly fresh faced youth and bunch of bumblers game for a laugh, this is a classically warm-hearted community panto, a real treat.

(The original version of this review appeared in the Belfast Telegraph on Friday December 5, 2014.)

SLEEPING BEAUTY (Lyric Theatre, Belfast)

With all the big, brash pantomimes around, how about a warmer, more intimately theatrical alternative? That's what writer Derek O'Connor, director/choreographer Deborah Maguire and the cast and crew of Sleeping Beauty seemed to offer the wet, shivering yet spirited souls who trundled up the Lyric's stairs. They were not to be let down.

How, one wondered, could O'Connor set this well told fairy story apart from its previous incarnations? His modus operandi is to "(make) the journey as much fun as possible", and, true to his word, the first quarter of the play was an utter delight – no "getting to know you" period, just a surprisingly fast-paced, colourful "in your face" concoction of natural humour, post-modern irony, original tunes and deft dancing. It leaves viewers keen to see more of this "Lost Kingdom" and its king, prince, princess, evil witch, good fairy and rather dazzling special effects.

Complemented by a tuneful score, the never really frightening yet always playfully entertaining production - because isn't that what panto should be? - features three particularly striking performances. Richard Ashton is fun to watch as the king, the impressive Jo Donnelly booms and hollers her way out of Maleficent's shadow, and the cheery chirpiness of Kathryn Aiken's fairy Firefly pumps the production with life at the most timely of moments.

(The original version of this review appeared in the Belfast Telegraph on Thursday December 11, 2014. It can be read here.)