After a gap of three years, the widely renowned, much missed and eagerly awaited Rodmell Pantomime once again opened its doors this year, playing to packed houses in the familiar surroundings of the Village Hall (the construction of the new Rodmell Theatre having been delayed sine die by the pandemic and the Ukraine war).
This year’s offering was the popular tale of ‘Aladdin’, by complete co-incidence recently staged in Eastbourne. The story is set in Old Peking, well-known for its autocratic rulers (just like Rodmell, as the script pointed out) and for hi-tech wizardry which could easily have been derived from the famous lamp and its genie. Many panto regulars were inevitably involved, as well as some newcomers who showed that acting talent could be on the rise in the village. The skills of the cast more than did justice to the story:
No stranger to playing upper-class villains and dimwits, Richard Sellick put in another highly believable portrayal of this year’s example, the Emperor Chop Suey the Third, intent on marrying off his beautiful daughter Martini to the highest bidder and beheading everybody else who as much as looked at her. His ego was loyally but incompetently supported by Sarah Jay as his PA, Won Ton, who sadly was unable to remember his formal title.
As the aforementioned daughter, a new village star, the pulchritudinous Charlie Whiteley, made a triumphant debut after being plucked by the talent-spotters from Lower Rodmell (that’s the posh part). Martini’s confidence has been shaken by her greedy and over-protective father, but nevertheless stirred by the handsome young Aladdin. Bravely, she didn’t shrink from giving us a psychologically scorching account of how love can triumph over adversity.
As the wicked Abanazar, Spencer Prosser played a sneering, snarling panto villain with the kind of menace that he usually reserves for opponents on the cricket field. If he leaves the beard on until summer Rodmell’s eleven could well be unbeatable.
The silly qua non of any Rodmell panto is undoubtedly Paul Mellor, panto dame extraordinaire. This time he was reincarnated as Widow Twanky, the devious matriarch in charge of a laundry and two ne’er-do-well offspring, Aladdin and Wishee Washee.
As Aladdin, village heartthrob Abby Benham-Wood carefully dusted off the renowned fishnet tights (or maybe painstakingly re-threaded them) to put in a heartfelt account of Aladdin’s anguished longing for a forbidden princess and his rather fortuitous success in winning her.
Wishee Washee by name she may have been, but Libby Mellor played the panto cheerleader for all she was worth, demonstrating a vocal power to rival the Gatwick tannoy, though with rather more musical ability.
There are always a lot of spirits involved in and around Rodmell. Georgina Prosser was the Spirit of the Ring, colourful if unseasonably-clad, offering magic assistance to whichever goody or baddy happened to have the ring at the time. Lindy Smart was the more powerful (and considerably more camp) Genie of the Lamp, whose role was to do pretty much the same for whoever gave her lamp a rub.
Vic Lentaigne and James Deller were the goose-stepping PC duo Ping and Pong, too full of bluster and incompetence keep hold of the slippery Aladdin. David Smart topped and tailed the proceedings with a couple of stentorian orations and wisely kept away from the silliness on stage.
No review could fail to mention that this year heralded the arrival of a star of the future. The Lord High Executioner, a terrifying figure, but confounded by Aladdin’s crafty wiles, was vividly played by the cast’s youngest member. We are withholding her name to avoid putting too much pressure on her at such an early age, but can only say that most eight-year-olds would give their front teeth for such an opportunity.
Musical direction was mercifully left to the professional skills of Andy Stewart, who managed to make all the fill-in music sound Chinese and everybody sing, if not in tune, at least in the right place. The artistic direction was as ever provided by the unmatched thespian (and cat-herding) skills of Paul Mellor, the talent assembled and organised by Spencer Prosser (probably using a little of his on-stage menace to ensure obedience). Whoever was responsible for all the jokes probably prefers to remain anonymous. Back-stage and front-of-house support came from some of Rodmell’s most loyal helpers and ingenious improvisors, including Chrissie Toye, Martin Burnaby-Davies, Lesley Prosser, Sarah Jay, Judith Bradbury, Alison Grace, Carol and Jerry Ashplant and the Abergavenny Arms. Raffle proceeds went to the Lewes Food Bank.
In short, a triumphant return of one of Rodmell’s greatest assets.
The last Rodmell pantomime was complimented for a more responsible attitude towards village reputations, less emphasis on gender-fluid characterisations, a more ‘woke’ attitude towards sexual stereotyping, fewer references to aspects of the male and female anatomy and a return to the more old-fashioned pantomime virtues of dreadful puns. I am pleased to see that these changes have largely been maintained this year: some of the jokes were commendably appalling, and penis references were at least stated to have been banned until the last performance.
Nevertheless I feel there is now another concern, this year about cultural appropriation and the colonialist overtones of the script. Aladdin is set in Old Peking, but it is surely disgraceful that the modern name Beijing has not been substituted for the ancient but discarded Peking, with its implications of a cruel autocratic regime. Similarly, there is not a single Chinese actor in the cast, the Director having resorted to an oriental version of the discredited old practice of ‘blacking up’. Moreover, stereotypical mockery of such a worthy ancient trade as running a laundry is unacceptable. It could easily have been rewritten as, for example, microchip regeneration, to avoid giving offence to washer-women. Finally, in spite of the presence in the cast of an executioner who came within a ace of beheading a cast member, the only trigger warning visible to potential audience members was about strobe lighting and pyrotechnics, which should in any case have been suppressed for ecological reasons.