Theatre in Wales

Theatre, dance and performance reviews

“The stars align for yet another Wardens spectacular’.


Aberystwyth Wardens , Aberystwyth Arts Centre , January-13-19
Aladdin  by Aberystwyth Wardens The newly refurbished Theatre y Werin auditorium is full to capacity, the word “Aladdin” is emblazoned across the house curtain and Elinor Powell has assembled her usual musical dream-team in ‘the pit’. This combination can only mean one thing – it’s time for (literally) my favourite two and a half hours of the year, the legendary Wardens’ pantomime.

This is already my third pantomime of the season having seen the Penarth Players’ production of Pinocchio and Sell-a-Door’s professional version of Aladdin in Catford, directed by none other than Richard Cheshire – lots more about him later!

Focusing entirely on the positives, I thoroughly enjoyed all three shows. In Penarth, apart from the stand-out performance by ex-Warden Harriet Taylor, the production oozed community spirit via the range of abilities in the cast and the plethora of totally satisfied customers of all ages, who packed out the historic Paget Rooms. In the thousand-seater Broadway Theatre in Catford, not only was the production value of the show phenomenal, the cast was inevitably littered with ‘star-turns’. The Wardens’ pantomime combines the best of both worlds – an amateur panto produced to professional standards.

As I write this review, the Wardens are half way through a gruelling 19 show run, so with literally thousands of people yet to see the show (the whole run is a complete sell-out), I shall avoid any spoilers and focus on what makes this panto so special – the uber-talented people who make it happen.

I must first of all mention how absolutely glorious this panto is visually. I’d go as far as to say that it’s the most aesthetically pleasing panto this stage has ever seen, thanks largely to the vision of Aberystwyth Arts Centre and their technical director Nick Bache during the long, but clearly worthwhile, renovations of this magical theatre, and the ethos of the Wardens’ purse-string holder, who never, ever, scrimps on quality, if it means enhancing the audience’s enjoyment.

Elsewhere, the scene changes are seamless and the best compliment I can pay the back-stage crew is that you never (well, hardly ever) see them. The band is typically on point and the importance that the Wardens attach to having a completely live band has always impressed me, whilst not being afraid to embrace modern sound effects to complement the fantastic musicianship that has been exhibited ever since they appointed Elinor Powell to the role of ‘MD’, some 13 pantomimes ago.

The show opens with a menacing monologue by Alex Neil, who plays Abanazer, in his eighth Wardens’ panto on the bounce. In my humble opinion, this is his best performance in a Wardens’ ‘shirt’, having mastered the tricky combination of evil, humour and vulnerability. I’ve said it before, but the Wardens are very lucky to have him and, despite hailing from Essex, he has more than earned his ‘Aber lad’ stripes and the ‘panto faithful’ clearly regard him as one of their own.

Neil introduces the ageless Theresa Jones as Queen Nefertiti (‘there’s an i after the tit’), by awakening her from the dead. Jones must be one of the first names on Richard Cheshire’s team-sheet each year as she is consistency personified, and this year is no exception. Her Principal Boy knee-slapping days may be behind her, but she is quite simply a class act.

Similarly, Wardens legend (and Chair) Julie McNicholls-Vale yet again delivers the goods as Constable Pong, ably assisted by Jordan Ainslee-Rogers as Constable Ping. Ainslee-Rogers’ stagecraft has grown immeasurably since his panto debut and working alongside someone as experienced as McNicholls-Vale will, no doubt, have assisted his development over the past few months. The trio of policemen is completed by Nick Allen who plays Sargent Pom Pom. His programme notes refer to a 32-year absence from the stage and, if this is true, this is a performance of which he can be very proud and Richard Cheshire must clearly agree, having given him the nod to take part in the legendary (and utterly brilliant) “12 Days of Christmas”.

The action is largely based in ‘Old Peking’ and, as ever, the glue that holds the Wardens’ pantomime together is the chorus, who have been skilfully choreographed by the lovely Lorna Lowe in her deserved debut as the show’s choreographer. The opening number is typically energetic, and my eyes are drawn to several members of the ensemble, who I then follow for the rest of the show. Tia Goffin, Becca Riches and Tristan Clemas, in particular, shine in the ‘big numbers’, largely down to their dancing prowess, but special mention goes to Ceri Roberts and Bob McIntyre, who both look like they are having the best time of their lives – the ethos of the whole panto in a nutshell, which is further illustrated by the beaming faces of the large and enthusiastic children’s chorus.

I mentioned earlier how Jordan Ainslee-Rogers had matured since his Wardens debut and the same has to be said for Maeve Courtier-Lilley, who plays Princess Jasmine. Not only does she have a gloriously rich and soulful voice, she plays the leading lady perfectly – generally ‘straight’ but with glimpses of coyness and humour, most notably during the finale to the ‘marshmallow scene’.

Princess Jasmine’s ladies in waiting are played by Laura Hughes, Hannah Sefton and Lucille Richards (Chee Ke, So Shy and Lotus Blossom respectively). As principal roles go, these are fairly minor parts, but we still get a taste of their potential through some excellent harmonising and well-delivered lines and I predict bigger and better things for all three of them in the future. Bradley Leonard’s cameo as Aladdin’s mate, So Lo, and Naomi Thorogood’s gorgeous interpretation of the Spirit of the Ring also represent solid principal role debuts and evidence of the Wardens providing priceless opportunities to local talent.

Aladdin himself is played by Jordan Jones, who takes the lead for the first time since his breakthrough role in Jack and the Beanstalk in 2017. I have to say, his performance on this particular Saturday night was nothing short of sensational. In the two years since he shared a stage with Daisy the Cow, his vocal range, tone and all-round stage presence have developed to such a degree, that I can but include him in the list of ‘star turns’ that this year’s pantomime possesses.

Speaking of which, I am now moving into the realms of Aberystwyth panto ‘royalty’. If Richard Cheshire is the Queen, then long live the King, the irrepressible and effervescent Ioan Guile. One of the biggest cheers of the evening was simply for Guile entering the stage, such is the regard that ‘the faithful’ have for this man. His performance as the Great Noodle is, as ever, hilarious and flawless.

Penultimately, I’ve previously been quoted as saying that “you can never have too much Carl Ryan” and so for me, I was not disappointed to see that Ryan was not only reprising his most famous Wardens’ role, the Genie, but he was also donning the rags to play Aladdin’s (not so) identical brother, Wishee-Washee. At various points in the panto, Ryan is the oldest person on stage but as ever, he is still the first person that your eyes are drawn to. His performance is high-octane but controlled and despite having ‘funny bones’, his technical skills and attention to detail are of an enviable level. Inevitably, having graced the stage for a full hour before he switches into his tiny golden briefs, his entrance as the Genie (or any of its subsequent reincarnations!) doesn’t have the same impact as in previous years but, as ever, the audience fall in love with him and, as he takes his bow, the 300 people clapping at waist level simultaneously start applauding above their heads.

Finally, as I read my programme at the start of the show whilst simultaneously stuffing my raffle tickets into my top pocket, I’m sure I was not alone in being delighted to see the name “Richard Cheshire” in the cast list (as Widow Twankey of course), as well as being the show’s director, something that hasn’t happened for the past few years. His directing is always revolutionary and, whatever trials and tribulations the Wardens go through to rehearse and put on this production, the end-product is always, without fail, remarkable. However, I talked about ‘star turns’ at the start of this review and for me, Cheshire on stage, particularly whilst renewing his irreplaceable partnership with Ioan Guile, is what elevates the panto to even greater stratospheres than the Wardens achieve without him.
As in most reviews, it is the actors who get the majority of the glory here but, speaking to some of the back-stage crew after the show they are totally cool with this, because this panto is about far more than adulation from the wowed audiences, it’s about being part of something bigger, something magical, something special, something that I hope is always part of my year, my life and the very fibre of Aberystwyth’s being. Many congratulations to every single person involved – you should all be very proud of yourselves and on behalf of the panto faithful, thank you. Just thank you.

Reviewed by: Alan Rock.

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