When an army of panto dames marched on Westminster last Christmas, they helped highlight the importance of pantomimes to the theatre economy. Pantos are often deemed the theatre industry’s lifeline, making more money than most other shows and helping to keep a venue going for the next year. Equally as vital, they serve as an introduction to live theatre for many young audience members.
Like most theatres up and down the country, Oldham Coliseum had to delay their 2020 panto, Aladdin, for a year because of the Covid pandemic and lockdowns. Boy is it worth the wait!
Delivering festive sparkle to northern audiences for over 130 years, the effort that Oldham Coliseum put into their annual pantomime is unrivalled. With all that experience under their belts, the Coliseum’s pantos are always run like a well-oiled machine. This is obvious from the moment you enter the theatre’s foyer, where neon flashy toys, that sell like hotcakes, are for sale. You’re then greeted by Kyle, the Front of House Duty Manager, who is sporting a fabulous Aladdin waistcoat. There is a genuine care from all the theatre staff to deliver a memorable experience for their audiences, which deserves to be commended.
This attention to detail transfers itself onto the stage with Celia Perkins‘ spectacular stage design, complete with puns and double entendres embedded into the impressive backdrops, which explode with colour and vibrancy. Perkins’ design reminds me of an Aardman film, as the more you look at the scenery, the more you notice and chuckle when you find new jokes hidden within the background.
Each year, the bar is raised ever higher with extraordinary sets and costumes that elevate Oldham Coliseum’s pantos, making them rival those staged by Manchester’s largest theatres and in the West End. Regional theatre definitely isn’t dying. It has bounced back from the pandemic stronger than ever.
It is incredibly refreshing to see a version of Aladdin with some diversity amongst the cast, rather than the usual whitewashing that plagues this panto. Shorelle Hepkin plays Aladdin with great energy and charm. She has far more charisma than Disney’s bland live action remake that’s for sure! Hepkin has a rich, powerful voice, which is perfectly demonstrated in Aladdin’s duet with Dora Rubinstein‘s Princess Jasmine. Both singers really shine in this song, and it ended up being my favourite from the evening.
Richard J Fletcher has played the panto dame at Oldham for over a decade and his experience shows in abundance. Fletcher works the audience like only a veteran can; rousing them into a sing-song, flirting with married men, delivering amusing innuendos, and skillfully ad-libbing jokes. There’s even the odd moment of corpsing here and there, showing that he’s enjoying himself as much as the audience are.
However, the show is completely stolen by Marc Zayat‘s exuberant performance as the flamboyant, almost psychedelic, Jinn of the Lamp. I applaud the fact that Chris Lawson and Oldham Coliseum have chosen to call his character a Jinn, rather than the westernised term, genie. Zayat steals the show from the minute he enters the stage, delivering the best fart joke I’ve seen in years. Never missing an opportunity to poke fun at his Disney equivalent, he’s an absolute joy to watch. He also makes a magnificent rapper – Easily stealing the crown of the best rapping genie/jinn from Shaquille O’Neal in Kazaam. Although Zayat does double up as another character, his performance as the Jinn is delightful!
With spectacular sets, gorgeous costumes, excellent performances, and great music that combines original compositions with well-known songs, it is incredibly hard not to have fun watching Aladdin. My only criticism of this panto is just how loud the music is from the speakers in the stalls. It may sound like I am nitpicking, but I listen to heavy metal music and even my ears were ringing by the interval, and I ended up moving to the back. Other than that, I had a hugely enjoyable evening.
The word ‘magical’ is often an overused cliché in theatre criticism, but there is honestly something magical and profoundly wholesome about being in a theatre full of children shouting “He’s behind you!!”; some of them experiencing live theatre for the first time. You then realise – These young people are the actors/directors/producers/stage managers of the future.
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Aladdin is at Oldham Coliseum until the 8th January. You can get tickets here.