REVIEW: The Spectacular Aladdin

Bigger isn't always better. The larger the venue, the greater the demand for star quality and the harder you have to try to fill it with soul. That's the challenge facing director Dan Gordon and producers Joe Rea and Martin Lynch as Belfast's giant SSE Arena stages a panto for the first time.

How will The Spectacular Aladdin, hereafter Aladdin, fare? Particularly against the feasts of fun frequently being served up in the city's smaller, more intimate venues?

The answer is, despite a series of niggles here and there, pretty well.

My pre-show gut feeling when I take my seat at the very back of the arena is that, either way, the production will be a curiosity. On one hand, the stage has never felt so remote, which is exactly what shouldn't be the case in panto.

On the other hand, it was inevitable that the SSE would get in on the panto game. They possess the pulling power and the pyrotechnics to produce a show that, for better or worse, will be unlike anything we've seen before. That, and pantos are guaranteed crowd pleasers when done right. And fortunately, Aladdin will definitely be one of those.

Beginning with an electrically choreographed dance in front of a dazzling projected backdrop - one of many finely crafted Sarah Johnston routines for the young ensemble – Aladdin puts its cards on the table quickly and confidently with a memorable introduction for the villainous Abanazar. A "friend of Donald Trump" as "handsome as Nigel Farage" who can turn all our undergarments inside out (Laughing? I was), is given an oily, commanding and sometimes clownish presence in a well-rounded and at times scene-stealing showing from former X-Factor star Rhydian. His distinctive Welsh tones ring loud and true all around the venue, marking him out as alternately threatening and hilarious when called upon – but not to the point where he overshadows everyone else.

After all, he is only part of the famous story which has him try to use the titular Aladdin (Jake – brother of Nathan – Carter) to get him a magic lamp, while Aladdin's eyes are only for Nadia Forde's Princess Jasmine. Hopping along for this magic ride are Widow Twankie (a very funny Chris Robinson), Wishie Washie (an audience-friendly Christina Nelson), the Slave Of The Ring (a charming Naomi Rocke), the Genie (Ross Anderson-Doherty), the Empress (Nuala McKeever) and the Police Chief (Marty Maguire), all game for enough musical numbers, grand set pieces, colourful backdrops, technological marvels and feeble-but-amusing puns to satisfy any heart and mind of any age.

What prevents Aladdin from transcending the satisfying to the very good, alas, is a host of what I'd call "little niggles". The sound balance on the solo numbers and duets could be better. A comic interlude to the tune of The Twelve Days Of Christmas is not as winning as it ought to be. Nuala McKeever and Marty Maguire seem sidelined. Nadia Forde doesn't have all that much to do. And the big show songs, while mostly enjoyable in their own right, don't always feel like they belong in the production.

But for all these teething problems - first SSE production, and all that - there are some genuinely stellar memories to take from Aladdin, namely a procession sound-tracked by the Imperial March and an illusion where Jasmine and Aladdin "fly" on a magic carpet over some of Belfast's most famous landmarks. Most importantly, the camaraderie is forever strong - local and national stars genuinely blending and bonding as a powerful, pleasing unit. That alone makes Aladdin worth a trip to the arena, and bodes well for future pantos at this very venue.

Simon Fallaha

The Spectacular Aladdin runs until December 27 at Belfast's SSE Arena.

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