It was in lots of ways the very best pantomime I've ever been to and Sir Ian's performance transcends just the simple description of dame. Yes he used all the usual exaggerations of the panto dame, the vulgarities the excessive dress, the innuendo all mixed up with that strangeness which is gender bending and which is fundamental to English culture. But he was also the first dame that has actually made me understand how it was that actors could believably play female parts in Tudor theatre.
He was balletic, light on his feet, comically clumsy, his knees springing apart when sitting down in too tight a dress and entirely, completely in control of his entire body. It is a tour de force of a performance yet, amazingly, he doesn't overshadow any other performer, he both gives them generously the space they need and interacts with them on exactly the right level.
In the programme McKellern gives thanks and acknowledges the help that other dames have given him in preparing the performance, including Christopher Biggins but even more than the current dames he runs through a gamut of other dames, tiny slices and shades of comics he's seen. Some of them I spotted, even a little Les Dawson, but there was one I seemed to be the only one to recognise and that was Rob Wilton, 'the day war broke out', since I was the only one that laughed.
There was a little demon on my shoulder from time to time whispering about how vulgar the jokes were and whether children were really being involved at all times but it was a very quiet whisper.
Abbanazer, Roger Allam, has a tremendous dark brown voice, an intelligent baddie, a sardonic, mocking baddie so, as often, I looked forward to his entrances more perhaps than anyone. The slapstick was largely provided by the acrobatic Hanky and Panky who were very good but it was one of the things the demon pointed out, that there was not quite enough slapstick.
If the entire cast, and the ensemble, performed brilliantly they did so even more with the curve balls that the technical set threw them. It is a very technical set with a lot of use of expanding boxes revealing sheets of material forming palaces, ming vases, flags and what have you. All too often the material was caught up in itself, it must take the accuracy of a parachute packer to get it all right in which case the cast must be thanking their various gods that it was panto they were doing and not sky diving.
The set completely knocked out the cast at the end of the first half where Aladdin is descending into the Cave of Wonders as he climbs into the set and emerges from what looked like a tent from the Army and Navy Stores there was a sharp clunk and small collapse, Alladin squirmed out, there was a brief pause and then the curtain closed. Some thought it was the end of the act and started the sprint to the bar until a member of the management came onto the stage and explained that there was a technical fault that they were trying to fix.
After about five minutes the curtain went up on the Cave of Wonders, a complicated arrangement of silky material, glittering strands and the like. Abbanazer calls down to Aladdin, 'Are you there, did you take the long way round?'
In the programme John Allam says that they've promised him that the Cave of Wonders will be working properly this year 'Oh Yes it Will', 'Oh No It Didn't!'
Still no matter the problems with the set, and the final scene was marred by the flag across the stage being twisted around itself, the production was stunning and if anyone is interested in pantomime, loves pantomime and is a little jaded with the Cadbury sponsored productions where soap opera actor (though the posters at the Old Vic could have 'Sir Ian McKellern of Coronation Street') and character actor are mismatched and bags of Buttons are thrown out into the audience then go see this Aladdin.
The original posting in the new journal is here