The Dukes at Lancaster reinvigorates its annual Christmas family show with magic and mockery

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Over the past few years the Dukes family Christmas shows have included retellings of Pinocchio and Beauty and the Beast, in which playwrights have reverted to traditional retellings. Stripping the Disneyfication from the tales to allow young audiences to take in the darker aspects of the fairytales has made powerful viewing.

This year, something completely different. With a new creative team at the helm, consisting of the Dukes’ new artistic director Sarah Pushton in the director’s chair and family theatre master Mike Kenny behind the script, the Dukes’ version of Aladdin is as subversive as previous years but with one key difference – it’s hilarious.

Aladdin, played by Marcquelle Ward (Coronation Street, Tracy Beaker, Banana) is a lazy good for nothing, happy to let his mum, played with relatable irritation by Preston-born Helen Longworth, work her hands raw in the palace laundry until she finally loses patience and sends him out to find work. In a nod to panto favourite Jack and the Beanstalk, he instead finds a mysterious stranger who promises to change his fortunes. He claims to be his estranged, rich uncle (Arif Javid) but is in fact “a really, really, really bad baddie” who convinces Aladdin to enter a cave to retrieve a lamp.

The theatrical genie, played by the animated Delme Thomas, emerges and tells Aladdin, who is expecting just three wishes, that he can make unlimited biddings. Once the not so noble Princess (Dora Rubinstein) is summoned, an appropriately festive narrative of consumerist greed ensues, complete with an unwittingly appropriate song about a royal wedding – “drink your tea from a royal mug, wipe your feet on a royal rug”.

Kenny and Ivan Scott’s simple, satirical lyrics are performed alongside equally simple but high-energy choreography devised by Zak Phillips-Yates. “There’s a hunger we will feed, please don’t worry we like greed, watch it grow just like a weed, we’ll make you want things you don’t need,” sing the cast during the market traders’ number Roll Up Roll Up. It’s clear that musical theatre isn’t the primary skill set of the cast of five but what they lack in octaves they make up for in character.

Performed in the round, the troupe engage the audience throughout but stand-out performances come from Thomas, who doubles as the narrator, whose dry humour and simple but effective magic tricks keep adults and children alike entertained, and from Longworth, who has a matriarchal command of the entire performance. Her every outburst and unsubtle eye roll add warmth and humor to the performance without her becoming a clown.

The Dukes has done a brilliant job of retaining its integrity and reputation for truly original Christmas family theatre while incorporating the hearty dose of high-jinks and comedy that often draws families to pantomime at this time of year.

In the true spirit of Christmas the characters, of course, come good but the moral of the story isn’t rammed down the audience’s throats like over-boiled brussels sprouts at the dinner table. The Princess learns to love Aladdin despite him being stripped of his magical sidekick – she notes that her Sultan father (also played by Javid) has plenty of money to sustain their future. And the Genie, now free – having traded his Ziggy Stardust-esque jumpsuit for a sheepskin coat – concludes “and that’s how I became a market trader”.

Aladdin is at the Dukes, Lancaster, until 6 January

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