What a difference a year (or two) makes. The last time we saw the panto at New Theatre was in 2019 when we saw Cinderella. Since then the world has spun on its axis and Covid restrictions meant that the panto was cancelled last year. As we sat and watched Cinderella little did we realise how things would change over the next twenty four months. Back then most of us hadn’t heard of Pfizer, Astra Zeneca, Track and Trace etc all of which, rather predictably, became punchlines to this year’s gags. So everything changes but some things resolutely stay the same. Which, of course, is one of the great joys of panto.
This year’s Aladdin ticked all the boxes that the New Theatre panto always does – high production values with stunning sets and costumes, a cast full of energy and enthusiasm, lots of innuendo for the “grown ups” and plenty of toilet humour for the “girls and boys”. Mike Doyle reprised his role as panto dame – a role that he has made so completely his own that is hard to imagine anyone else filling those (enormous) shoes. Every year he is a highlight of the panto – the rapport he has with the audience appears so effortless and genuine – and he was ably assisted this year by Paul Chuckle as Wishy Washy with whom he had an easy chemistry.
Another familiar face was rugby star Gareth Thomas, or “Alfie” as he is known affectionately. We have watched him develop over the last few years into an extremely confident panto performer who has a permanent smile on his face and who seems to thoroughly enjoy the experience. This year he was, of course, the genie who magically appeared from the lamp to flex his muscles and he even took a turn at singing! He may not have had the best voice in the cast but was clearly much loved by the audience.
Denquar Chupak and Gareth Gates
The other stand out performance was by Stefan Pejic as the wicked Abanazar. He truly was the perfect pantomine villain who, with his booming voice and wicked laugh, stole every scene that he was in.
Gareth Gates was a very likeable, if slightly underwhelming, hero. Never more so than when referring obliquely to his (now well-managed) stutter during a tongue-twisting routine about short-sleeved shirts. At the end of the first half he magically flew over the audience on a flying carpet and it really was impossible not to suspend belief for those few moments and feel as uplifted as he was.
How we, the audience, did enjoy it. Despite there being a few empty seats and most of the adults wearing masks everyone seemed thrilled to be there. There was screaming, shouting, laughing and dancing and, after such a miserable few years, it was lovely to see. As one of my friends commented to me afterwards “this was just what we needed”. It was, and it is difficult to know how much of our enjoyment was the knowledge that a little bit or normality (as far as panto can every be normality!) had returned, albeit briefly, to our lives and how much was due to the fact that this really is a brilliant show!
Main image: Denquar Chupak and Gareth Gates
Images by Tim Dickeson
New Theatre, Cardiff until January 2