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by on 25 January 2022

Worth All the Tea in China


by Jackie Howting

Edmundians at Cheray Hall, Whitton until 29th January

Review by Celia Bard

So good to see a full auditorium and it is good to see the Edmundians back in action after a two year break due to Covid.  Mind you this production was still not free from the viciousness of this nasty little virus, leading to last minute replacements because of forced isolation.  However, true to the spirit of panto and the enthusiasm and talent of this drama society, press night performance of Aladdin proceeded smoothly.  The audience consisted of people of all ages and did not need much encouragement to participate: “Oh Yes, they were!”

The panto was performed in traditional mode with a much appreciated topical twist.  Atypical was the opening scene that opened on a mountain ski resort, a nod, no doubt, to the Beijing Winter Olympics, although I was later informed that the writer had also recently spent some time in Austria, and was able to bring her experience into this production.

The success of this production was due to many factors including the set and stage design.  Stage backcloths were varied, bright and colourful and in keeping with the atmosphere, mood and setting of the play.  The new lighting, in which the Edmundians have recently invested, is sophisticated and added much to the enjoyment of this production.  The lighting was well balanced, and it was good to see that the lighting designer didn’t get carried away with new technical gadgetry.  Likewise the costumes were excellent, well designed and true to Chinese tradition, much thought being given to differences in attire between the rich and the poor.  The parrot’s costume was superb… I wondered how long it had taken to produce all those feathers!  

The music, arranged by Paul ‘Wiz’ Baker, was slick and the songs were well chosen, popular and not over long, which helped to maintain the production’s overall pace.  Mustavit’s numbers Reviewing the Situation and Be Prepared afforded the singer, Marc Batten, the opportunity to display his vocal prowess.  I liked the added reverb to Aladdin and Jasmin’s song, A Whole New World, for this added a haunting echo to the number.  I Feel Like a Woman sung by the dame, Matt Ludbrook, was a clever choice in view of the cross-dressing nature of the character, and certainly went down well with the audience.   The numbers chosen for the chorus including Hard Knock Life, and Take a Chance on Me led by Aladdin, were tuneful and delivered with zest.  The choreography of the dances and placement of dancers was carefully planned, and it was good to see how naturally all the performers moved to their positions.  Although the flying carpet was an imaginative addition to the production, I did at times find it a distraction.  I thought it best used when the dame interacted with it … perhaps less flying?  Appropriate attention was given to the props, including the jewels in the cave, the flowers and ornaments in the palace grounds and après ski.  Not forgetting the programme: this was well designed and contained a great deal of what was for me, new information about Aladdin, and why it ends up being based in China – reference, for example, to Tuon Ki (Twankey), a popular Chinese tea, and more locally, the growth of Chinese laundries in 1860 London.

A major attraction of pantomimes performed by the Edmundians is the balance between young and adult actors.  Working with adult and more seasonal performers provides younger performers with insights into the craft of acting as well as inspiring confidence, allowing both groups to enter wholeheartedly into an activity involving both storytelling and fantasy.  This production of Aladdin is no exception.  Aoife Kingsland, who plays the character of Aladdin, is just thirteen and yet she is able to portray a character much older with confidence.  She was totally believable, interacts well with other characters, as well as being to sing with assurance.  Princess Jasmin was played by the very charming young performer, Mary McGrath.  Mary has a strong stage presence and plays this role with great sensitivity.  She is able to hold a tune, and although her singing voice is light, this no doubt will strengthen with increased maturity and practise.   Emily Hill-Kelly as Marigold gave a sincere performance and conveyed a strong bond of loyalty and friendship with Princess Jasmin.   The Spirit of the Ring, acted by Imogen Goddard, has an ethereal presence and gave the appearance of floating on the stage, which was exactly right for this character.  Ding a Ling, the parrot, is played by eleven year old Evie Schaapveld.  What is striking about Evie, apart from her wonderful costume, is her growing ability to play an audience.  It was great to see her gesturing to the audience when she sought greater participation from them.  This was an extremely assured performance, with spirited solo singing.

Jackie Howting must be commended for stepping into the role of the Empress at the very last moment.  Although on-book she gave a very assertive portrayal, conveying the authority of the character and acting with conviction.  The Genie, played by Kayleigh Easterbrook, looking grand in her costume, was superb.  Aided by lighting, she made a real impact in the opening scene of the pantomime.  Becky Halden was splendid as Wishee Washee, the older brother of Aladdin.  Becky is a strong physical performer, her timing is faultless, and she engages with the audience brilliantly, as does Widow Twankey played by Matt Ludbrook who is just fabulous as the pantomime dame.  Matt relished the role and his not so subtle flirting with the Vizier was truly priceless, as was his rendering of the song, I Feel Like a Woman.  Nick Garvey was convincing as the Vizier, determined to fulfil his duties with diligence, but not sure as to how to deal with the not so subtle advances made by Widow Twankey.  Marc Batten, as the evil and mischievous Mustavit, was a tour de force.  Marc is an actor who is able to use his eyes most expressively, revealing his most innermost thoughts, often at odds with what he is actually saying.  I would like to see him play the Shakespearean character, Iago.  He looked and was truly splendid as Mustavit.

This production of Aladdin was well directed by Jackie Howting, supported by a creative, hardworking and imaginative backstage crew.  Despite a two-year break due to the trials and tribulation of Covid, this is not a panto to be missed, should you be lucky enough to get a ticket!

Celia Bard, January 2022

Photography by Jackie Howting

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