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New Zealand Herald review, 23 September 2003


Panto's magic formula: Michael Hurst's wacky pantomime is a work of pure genie-us. Boom boom.

AK03: Aladdin at St James

Bounce, thwack. Bounce, thwack. That's the sound of the Widow Twankey falling down the stairs.

Actually, that was the sound of Michael Hurst, pretending to be the Widow Twankey, falling down the stairs. This was so deliciously funny that she/he did it again. And again.

This is one of the delights of the panto: see that sight gag? Now see it again. And just one more time to make sure it was as funny as it was the first time. It was.

Hurst's production of Aladdin--at the St James until October 4--is so delightful that you could easily see it again.

It operates on a number of levels. There are terrible puns. The Widow Twankey, after a fight with an ironing board, announces, "Well, I think that qualifies me for the ironman competition." A beat for the groans. "The final decision will be made by the board."

There are terrible songs. "Maybe he appeals to me, or I've had too much muesli." There are the little sideways digs for the adults. Wishee-Washee is tardy. He caught the train. "Britomart? No wonder you're late."

Alison Wall, magnificently, terrifyingly hamming it up in the fakest beard you're likely to see outside a school play, as the Uncle Abenazar, asks, "What brings us to these parts? We've got lousy agents."

You can see enough of the strings to allow the kids to become caught up in the magic that the theatre works. When Wishee-Washee (John Brough) goes through the wringer, a flattened Wishee-Washee suit is produced. He has to be blown up with a bicycle pump; you can see him creep in behind. You can hear the kids whispering, or shouting, with delight at the sheer excitement at spotting what those naughty actors get up to when they think you're not looking.

You can see the flying harness in the bottom-of-the-Yellow-Sea scene. None of this detracts from the magic - actually, it enhances the sense of being inside a secret world where strange things, nonsensical things, make perfect sense.

Strange things happen - even scary things can happen -but in this place they are made normal, and not so scary, by giving them silly names. The Genie is called Bevan. The Dragon Queen (also played by Wall) is called Deirdre.

The cast is universally, enthusiastically, terrific. But Hurst's Widow Twankey, the busty washerwoman with knobbly knees and a voice as rough as the widow's hands after she's done her washing in "sulphuric acid, porridge and cocoa", stands out. So does Wall: her comic timing is superb and her transformation from the dreaded Dragon Queen to a frightful housewife from some suburb somewhere in the 1950s is a truly scary sight.

If you can't find a kid to take, go anyway. Hurst's Aladdin is made by a sorcerer. It's the sort of stuff that makes you believe that carpets can fly - and that theatre can take you on a thrilling and magical ride.

AK03: Pantomime casts age-old spell

Back in 1846, before anyone had heard of Gilbert and Sullivan, the British press bellowed that pantomime "had had its day".

But if yesterday's performance of Aladdin at Auckland's Westend Theatre was anything to go by, its future seems bright.

The Auckland Festival show's energetic cast had the audience of young children and parents screaming with laughter and excitement.

The basis of traditional pantomime dates from the Middle Ages, when it was first performed to the British public on village greens.

A mixture of traditional elements and modern trends ensure that the genre is as popular as ever and a visit to the pantomime is often a child's first taste of theatre.

The morale-boosting story lines, the triumph of good over evil, means most come away happy and wanting more.

Pantomime is traditionally performed throughout the Christmas festive season in Britain, to audiences packed to the theatre's rafters.

But, as director Michael Hurst and his cast have proved, even a warm spring afternoon in downtown Auckland can play host to such timeless entertainment.

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