Above: CBeebies stars Abe Jarman (Aladdin) and Jane Deane (Slave of the Ring). Photo: James Spicer
When Croydon Council closed the town’s arts centre, Fairfield Halls, earlier this year – for a controversial two-year refurbishment – South London was, at the same time, deprived of the Ashcroft Theatre’s big budget annual panto blockbuster. What’s more, the capital was potentially looking at a professional panto void all the way from Wimbledon to Bromley.
Not phased by the near-impossible task of following Evolution Pantomimes’ year-on-year box office-breaking Fairfield production, television actress Pauline Quirke together with husband, Steve, decided to stage possibly the world’s first major ‘Pop-Up Panto’ with Q Productions (a subsidiary company of The Pauline Quirke Academy of Performing Arts).
The result is the extraordinary transformation of Croydon’s Waddon Leisure Centre into a full-scale 500-seat theatre complete with proscenium arch, stage, full lighting and sound set-up... and judging from the full house at this week’s press night, the people of Croydon are loving 2016’s production of Aladdin.
Starring, in the title role, presenter of CBeebies’ Let’s Go Club Abe Jarman in his first-ever stage appearance and panto veteran Jane Deane as the Slave of the Ring, I was pleasantly surprised by how well the show has been put together. Creating the required atmosphere for a theatre show in the sports hall of a modern leisure centre (complete with basketball rings) is hardly the easiest of tasks for a producer, director, cast and crew, but hats off to all involved in Q Productions’ inaugural Croydon panto (they’ve already booked in Jack and the Beanstalk next year!).
Complete with pantomime’s favourite scenes, including a hilariously performed Twelve Days of Christmas slosh scene and everyone’s favourite ghost/bench section, every box has been ticked in Ben Langley’s inclusive script. Directed by lead producer Eddie Dredge, this version of Aladdin works strongly across the entire cast with just a couple of minor gripes... Although strongly presented, Dean Kilford’s Wishee Washee could do with some more material to get the audience onside if he wants the traditional ‘Hello Gang!’ to get the big response every time he comes onstage. Also, the Ping and Pong police double-act mysteriously seem to vanish never to appear again after an early and potentially promising introduction. But I quibble.
With some impressive dance moves and bundles of stage presence, Abe Jarman arguably becomes the star of this show making the most of a part which is often seen as the titular straight role. Jane Deane’s limitless supply of energy (and uni-cycling!) is extremely telling of her fifteenth pantomime, as is Steve Fortune’s Widow Twankey who oozes experience and seems to have an instant come-back for any unplanned eventuality. Elsewhere, KM Drew Boateng brings a gorgeously played, booming, larger-than-life Genie to the stage, and the versatile John Conway impresses in multiple scenes as Princess Jasmine’s father, The Emperor (coping admirably with a myriad of ‘shortist’ jokes).
Mention should also be given to MD, Jerome Van Den Berghe, who leads a vast band of TWO! – and somehow, with Adam Sheffield on drums, achieves as full a sound as you’ll hear anywhere demonstrating the wonders of modern technology.
Lastly, the all-important and critical view of Mini Sardines – which can make or break a pantomime overnight – is a big thumbs-up! So much so that during the press night performance, even at just three years old, was already asking to be allowed onstage for the traditional sing-a-long. High praise indeed - and goodness help us all if he does ever get near the stage!
Admittedly, the show is produced with a lower budget than its Fairfield predecessor, but then again, so are the ticket prices; at just £11.50-£16.50 the show certainly offers South London’s families full value for money. And let’s not forget just what a mammoth financial undertaking it must be to build a complete show from nothing in an empty space (watch out for a ‘Pop-Up Panto’ special feature in the next edition of Sardines).
Aladdin, Croydon’s only professional pantomime, continues at Waddon Leisure Centre until 31st December. For more info and tickets visit: www.aladdincroydon.com
Below: Abe Jarman as Aladdin, Dean Kilford as Wishee Washee, and Steve Fortune as Widow Twankey. Photo: James Spicer