Photographs by Freia Turland
As the Theatre Royal Bath prepares to lift the curtain on this year’s panto, producer Martin Dodd promises: “Audiences who come to see Aladdin can expect magic, laughter, music and plenty of energy in a new take on the classic story.”
Martin, who is Managing Director of UK Productions, adds: “Pantomime is different to any other form of theatre. Because we break the fourth wall, the audience can talk to the actors and the actors can talk back to them and it’s such a fun experience. Aladdin is one of the best, most beloved stories and it offers a great take on the idea of achieving your dreams. It’s colourful and bright and, with a new script, there are plenty of surprises in store.”
The new joke-filled script is by Bath’s all-round pantomime legend Jon Monie, who offers a fresh take on one of the most popular pantos of all time - telling the thrilling story of a boy, a magic lamp and a genie through comedy, song and dance, slapstick, dazzling special effects, beautiful costumes and, of course, lots of audience participation.
Heading the cast are West End and Emmerdale star Tom Lister as baddie magician Abanazar, with Jon Monie making his annual return to the Theatre Royal, this time as Wishee Washee, and Nick Wilton from EastEnders as Widow Twankey.
After last year’s smash hit Cinderella starring Dani Harmer, Aladdin marks UK Productions’ 25th venture at the Theatre Royal, while pantomime has been an integral part of the venue’s programming for more than 200 years. In November 1815, ten years after the Theatre Royal opened at Bath’s Sawclose building, the famous entertainer Joseph Grimaldi played the clown in Mother Goose. When the Maddox family took over management of the theatre in 1937 for a four-decade tenure, they really put Bath on the panto map and it’s been an annual tradition ever since.
Aladdin is very much a show for now, with Dodd pointing out: “Our heroine is much more empowered than maybe she was previously. Princess Jasmine is not just following the action and simply reacting to what’s going on, she has far more say in how the plot moves along. I do believe people enjoy seeing a different slant to a story they think they know.”
The actor, who came to fame as Emmerdale bad boy Carl King, is no stranger to the stage. He was in 42nd Street in the West End and toured with Calamity Jane, including a stop at the Theatre Royal Bath in 2015, with Legally Blonde and Water Babies also on his CV. Tom is no stranger to panto either, having played Captain Hook in The Further Adventures of Peter Pan: The Return of Captain Hook at Malvern Theatres in 2021/2022 after previously starring as Hook in Peter Pan in Stevenage in 2016/2017 - for which he was named Best Villain at the inaugural Great British Pantomime Awards.
The first panto Tom went to see was Babes in the Wood at Bradford Alhambra featuring Cannon and Ball. “I remember falling off my chair laughing,” he recalls. “I have real fond memories of pantomime and my kids are now creating their own memories of this wonderful Christmas tradition. Who can resist the mixture of magic, singing and dancing, audience interaction, pratfalls and comedy, and jokes for everyone - silly jokes for the kids, topical jokes and a bit of double entendre for the grown-ups?”
Will Lister’s children be coming to see him in Aladdin? He laughs. “They have to, basically.” North Yorkshire-born Tom is also looking forward to being back in Bath, saying: “It’s such a gorgeous city and I can’t wait to see what it’s like at Christmastime. It’s going to be chocolate box heaven.”
The city, of course, is home to Jon Monie - a bona fide Theatre Royal legend who made his Bath pantomime debut in 1996 and who has since performed at the venue well over 1,000 times. This Christmas marks his 20th panto season in his home city, where he wrote and appeared in Cinderella last year and where his 2019/2020 take on Beauty and the Beast won Best Script at the Great British Pantomime Awards.
"Who can resist the mixture of magic, singing and dancing, audience interaction, pratfalls and comedy, and jokes for everyone - silly jokes for the kids, topical jokes and a bit of double entendre for the grown-ups?”
“Aladdin is one of the best pantomime stories,” Monie believes, “and I haven’t strayed too far from it and thrown the baby out with the bathwater. But there are lots of new jokes. There’s been so much going on in the news this year that it’s a gift for comedy writers. There are references galore and hopefully we’ll put a smile on people’s faces whether they’re eight, 18 or 80.”
Jon is a true multi-hyphenate - an actor, television presenter, award-winning writer and comedian. But with everything from Jack and the Beanstalk to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs via Sleeping Beauty and Dick Whittington on his résumé, pantomime remains one of his biggest passions.
“I never set out to make a career of it,” Monie admits, “and I had visions of playing Hamlet when I was young, but in the entertainment industry your career often goes off at different angles and it’s one that I’m delighted by. What I really like about pantomime, from a completely selfish point of view, is that as an actor you get to do visual comedy, physical comedy and verbal comedy, you get to sing and dance and to use all of these skills you have.”
He’s played Wishee Washee many times before, jesting: “It’s a great name and a hell of a score at Scrabble. He’s an idiot really but he loves his mum and his brother and he’s always trying to do the right thing. Unfortunately, he always makes a mess of it but he has a heart of gold.”
As Wishee’s mum Widow Twankey, Nick Wilton says: “She’s such a great character. She’s a real man-chaser and very naughty.” The man best known as Market Inspector Mr Lister on EastEnders since 2008 is also hailed as one of the best pantomime dames in the business and last played Widow Twankey in a 2016 production of Aladdin at the Theatre Royal. “This is a different take because Jon Monie always writes a great script,” Nick adds. “It also means I get a lot more schtick from my on-stage son. I’m definitely the butt of all his jokes.”
Wilton’s roster of dames also includes Polly La Plonk in Beauty and the Beast, Dolly in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Dame Trott in Jack and the Beanstalk. “I started out doing sketch shows on TV, which don’t exist anymore, and pantos encompassed a lot of what I was already doing - like character work, sketches and routines,” he says of why he’s drawn to the genre. “I also love that cheeky relationship with the audience.”
Does he get to sing in the show? “Unfortunately for the audience, yes, but they’re character songs. And again, Jon has written some fantastic lyrics. I also love the fact that as always in Bath it’s very much a theatre panto rather than one of the big glitzy ones full of star names. It’s traditional and very story-led, and there’s always a wonderful and warm atmosphere at the Theatre Royal.”
Alex Aram is thrilled to be playing the title character. “Growing up it was my favourite Disney movie,” says the 25-year-old from Chester. “It was about an Arabian character and my family are from Turkey in the Middle East, so I saw some of myself in him. He’s also fun to play because the majority of the time he’s a goofball and a show like this brings so much joy to people. For kids, pantomime is often the first time they get introduced to live theatre so it’s also inspirational.”
Trained at The Hammond performing arts school, Alex’s previous stage credits include Jack & The Beanstalk and The Dog With Two Dads. It’s his first time in Bath. “And it is stunning,” he raves. “It’s such a beautiful place and the Theatre Royal has such a great reputation. Whenever I mention it people go ‘Wow, that’s such a great venue’.”
Completing the core cast is Kaysha Nada, a 22-year-old actress from Grimsby who is making her professional debut as Princess Jasmine. “I’m both nervous and excited,” admits the recent graduate from Manchester’s Arden School of Theatre, “but I feel massively lucky and the cast are amazing.”
Jasmine has been an obsession of hers from childhood. “She’s far and away my favourite Disney Princess and she’s such an empowering character for all little girls. I’m half Filipino myself so growing up it was lovely to see someone who looked like me on the screen and I’m very happy to be playing her now.”
Kaysha is also happy with Jon Monie’s take on the Princess, saying: “She’s a real role model and someone kids in the audience can look up to. She’s feisty and she has great morals. It’s a dream come true for me and people love pantos, don’t they? There’s the interaction, which you don’t usually get in live theatre, and they bring all the family together at Christmas.”
The pantomime Aladdin appears at the Theatre Royal Bath from Thursday 8th December to Sunday 8th January. Tickets are on sale at the Theatre Royal Bath Box Office on 01225 448844 and online at www.theatreroyal.org.uk