I’ve already experienced two of the worst ‘live’ entertainment nights of the year at the O2, with the loud and vacuous Jesus Christ Superstar arena tour and Cirque du Soleil’s listless Michael Jackson tribute. Now a new canvas tent, installed under the vast canopy of the O2 and seating some 1,900 people on one wide, raked level with tiny plastic stadium tip-up seating and very little heating, provides the home for a panto that makes it the most uncomfortable night I’ve spent in any venue all year.
And it’s not just because the show is Aladdin that it rubs you up the wrong way even before it begins – there seems to be just one bar with a meagre three staff serving this vast house and just one till between them. The crush there was six deep. Little or no attention seems to have been given to audience comfort. From the sound of Lily Savage’s quips, the performers don’t fare too much better: dressing rooms are reportedly Portakabins with no running water.
In a spontaneous-seeming aside, she brilliantly labels the O2 itself “an upturned wok”. But the Oriental Peking stir-fry being cooked on this particular stage has also been insufficiently stirred as yet and also overstuffed with ingredients that have been left to simmer but seldom feel as if they’re being cooked. All of which is a crying shame as this panto has unusually high production values, with terrific lavish sets from designer Alan Miller Bunford, and one amazing special effect in a levitating magic carpet for Jon Lee’s Aladdin that not only soars above the stage but above the audience, too.
I was reminded that Michael Rose, co-producer of this spectacle, is also the man who made a car fly over the Palladium stage in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, though it had a habit of breaking down, too. History has been repeating itself at the O2, where the matinee before the press night was cancelled to enable “crucial technical work to be carried out on the mechanism that enables the magic carpet to fly during the show”.
Happily, it soared on command but the show around it mostly remains stubbornly earthbound. Partly it is a function of the venue that sucks the life out of the show even as the temperatures in the auditorium are freezing the audience in every sense. But also it is probably significant that nowhere in the lavish souvenir programme or extensive production credits could I find a credit for a writer.
The resulting show is a shapeless and shameless pop panto with plenty of theatrical contributions, too. Act II, for instance, opens with Dirty Laundry from Dana P Rowe and John Dempsey’s The Witches of Eastwick, then segues to Chicago’s When You’re Good to Mama, before moving on to a re-written version of Nine’s Be Italian, re-dubbed Be a Scoundrel here.
A game cast, strong on musical theatre performers like Lee, Issy van Randwyck and Darren Bennett, give the songs good value, and a hard-working chorus execute director David Morgan’s standard-issue panto choreography with panache. There’s also an impressively large live band, inside the auditorium itself on stage right, under the musical direction of Andrew Corcoran. But the contrived plot fails to generate tension or cohesion around it, and at nearly three hours long, it is in need of serious pruning.
Lily Savage, appearing by kind permission of Paul O’Grady, is slightly tamed and toned down for panto, but she recalls her past when she exclaims, “I’m not scared of dungeons - I did the Royal Vauxhall Tavern for eight years.” Part of me wishes a magic carpet would take me, and her, back there, instead of in this huge, Arctic tent.