For Lee's fourth panto, he plays the title role in Aladdin, presented by QDOS, produced and directed by Michael Harrison - the Hippodrome panto has, until this year, been the 'biggest in the land' and though it may have had to cede that position this year to a newly and, some say, ill-conceived mega-scale production of Cinderalla at the nearby Barclaycard Arena, popular opinion confirms that Aladdin trounces its larger neighbour for quality and all-round entertainment.
Lee is joined in the cast by:
Without revealing too many spoilers, the action ranges from the marketplace of Old Peking to Ancient Egypt via gardens and caves and, of course, Widow Twanky's laundry. The sets are colourful, the costumes lavish, while the big budget is most evident in the effects that bring audible gasps from the audience at regular intervals. The highlights in this department are, unsurprisingly, the two flying carpet sequences - the first seeing Wishee Washee and Ringo soaring out above the audience (test-flying it for Aladdin, whose voice as he watches on soars even higher than they do, though sadly he doesn't get to take to the skies himself) while the second whisks the shrieking audience on a fabulously frightening 3D ride to Abanazar's secret lair.
For those of you who saw Julian Clary alongside Lee in Jack & the Beanstalk in Southampton in 2012, his high-camp and relentlessly innuendo-laden delivery, not to mention frequent changes into ever more fabulous costumes, will come as no surprise - once again, he successfully balances the very adult humour with enough silliness and glamour to keep all generations thoroughly entertained.
In his panto debut, Marti Pellow's Abanazar is steely-eyed and extravagant of gesture, if a little too pretty and pleased with himself to be truly sinister and, while his accent may range as far and wide as the plot, his voice (in a second-half song he wrote himself) is as good as it ever was. Emily Shaw is a feisty Princess Jasmine, with a fabulous voice and Landi Oshinowo a big presence in a fairly small role, her powerhouse voice more than holding its own against a band, led my musical director Robert Willis, which was at times a tad overloud.
The biggest cheer is without doubt reserved for local favourite, Matt Slack (picture above with Lee and Julian), returning for the third year to the Hippodrome and already booked for next year - his quickfire comedy, both physical (even joining in a tumbling routine with The Acromaniacs) and verbal, is non-stop and perfectly pitched for a panto crowd. Dame, Andrew Ryan, is a great foil for Slack - the 'music on shuffle' skit (about which I will say no more for fear of spoiling) is a particular highlight - but also holds the stage in his own right and shows off a powerful voice in the opening number of Act 2.
But what of Lee I hear you ask? It can be hard to make a mark in what is something of a secondary role, particularly in such a star-laden cast, but Lee's Aladdin has no trouble at all standing out (not a euphemism, I'll leave those to Julian!), with boyish charm aplenty and an earnest innocence that has the audience rooting for him from the start. His deadpan participation in a couple of knock-about comedy routines, one while continuing to sing a duet with Jasmine ('One True Love' - also written by Marti Pellow), is a real joy and it was fabulous to see a little light sword-twirling too (I've missed his swordplay since we last saw it in 2013's Robin Hood in Plymouth!). But in a genre where musical talent isn't necessarily a casting priority, as always it is his voice which really sets him apart - first with the inevitable but hugely well-received 'Any Dream Will Do', littered with acerbic (but very funny) asides from Julian Clary, and later with the aforementioned Act 1 finale which earned this observation in Paul Vale's review for The Stage:
"Lee Mead as Aladdin still manages to pull off boyish charm with ease and pairs it with killer vocals that at one point, even upstage the flying carpet."You can read more reviews in the December Press Round-up and see more of Keith Pattison's fabulous production photographs on the Birmingham Hippodrome website.
If I have one small criticism of an otherwise wonderful show, it is that after two hours of non-stop spectacle, the 'stroll into the sunset' ending feels somewhat anti-climactic and though it is followed by the traditional, glitzy walk-down, the two-line reprise of an earlier number seems something of a wasted opportunity with so many great voices in the cast. But that minor niggle aside, Aladdin at the Birmingham Hippodrome has everything you could want from a panto - it's big, bold, loud and colourful with fantastic effects, but for me it's the skill, spot-on timing and superb voices of its fabulous cast that pack the biggest punch.
Aladdin runs until Sunday 31 January, twelve shows a week, and though already well sold, there are still good seats to be had, particularly later in January - so what are you waiting for?!
Tickets are priced from £24 to £42 at weekends, cheaper mid-week (concessions available):
BOOK ONLINE (24 hours) or BY PHONE on 0844 338 5000 (Mon-Sat 10am-8pm, 6pm if no evening performance)
There will be a special one-off 'relaxed' performance at 12noon on Thursday 28 January - for further information contact Liz Leck on 0121 689 3064 or by email.
Last updated: 27 December 2015