Ben Cajee as Aladdin and Sofie Anné as Princess Jasmine


Wolverhampton Grand


Panto is all about tradition, the ridiculous dame so far over the top they can touch the moon, the (boo, hiss) baddy, the handsome hero falling in love with the daughter of some high up, a ghost or two, a sprinkling of fairy dust, a flying carpet and of course the traditional pantomime . . . elephant. (Sure that's right?)

OK, that bit might be new, but the rest was all there in the Grand’s first home produced panto in a mere 43 years – perhaps they should have found faster scriptwriters . . . just a suggestion.

Everyone’s favourite, once again, was Tam Ryan as Wishee Washee. His rapport with the audience was instant, with asides, comments and telling looks all adding to an assured and very funny performance.

But let’s not forget Wishee Washee’s brother, Aladdin, in an confident performance from  Ben Cajee, who children in the audience know from CBeebies and CBBC. And you can’t have Aladdin with a love interest so enter Sofie Anne as Jasmine,

Wishee Washee

Tam Ryan as Wishee Washee. Pictures: Alex Styles

Sofie has a great voice and knows how to use it, not surprising as her Aunty Beverley is better known to the rest of us as Beverley Knight. Incidentally, Sophie attended Birmingham Ormiston Academy and has gone on to make a career as a singer appearing around the world.

Jasmine is the daughter of the pompous, money and power obsessed Notary played by Ian Billings, who fusses his way confidently through his 53rd panto, so knows the ropes . . . oh yes he does (join in if you like).

Now running Shangri Fah, where this is set, with the aim of lining your own pockets is not exactly being a goody, but against the panto baddy Abanazar he is almost a saint. Michael Greco, Hollywood star and once Beppe in EastEnders, seems to revel in the role of baddy, but you suspect he is just too nice a guy to really be nasty – he needs a few more signs of cruelty and evil threat to give him that hint of a psychopath seeking world domination. Not that the kids cared, He’s the baddy, so one, two, three and  . . . Booooo.

Balancing the bad we have the good in the lovely shape of Zoe Birkett who plays the Spirit of the Ring trying to moderate the demands of Abanazer and help Aladdin. Zoe, winner of Pop Idol back in 2002, is now an established West End star and has a fabulous voice to lift any show.


Zoe Birkett as The Spirit of the Ring with the ensemble

Now you can’t have Aladdin without a Genie, so enter, in a flash of course, Duane Gooden, who brings a bit of fun to the role.

And you can’t have panto without a dame – once again at the Grand it's in the shape of Ian Adams, a rather charming, quiet, unassuming gent off stage, but he comes alive with a booming voice once he dons his dame’s frock and really doesn’t care anymore . . . don’t ask, you need to see it.

He first entered panto Damehood in 1999 and after nine years at Lichfield Garrick is now in his sixth year of bloke in a frock moments at the Grand, this time as Widow Twankey, with risqué humour, seaside postcard style jokes, old and new, and a dress for each scene with what appeared to be an obsession with, should we say, boob baubles.

Add a heard working and tap dancing ensemble, with some very acrobatic girls, and you have all the ingredients for a traditional panto. There was slapstick between Twankey and Wishee Washee, unsophisticated, basic and simple, but the kids loved it, we had the being chased by the ghost behind you routine, the cave, the lamp, the battle between good and evil and a five piece band under musical director Laurence Stannard.

Songs included a rewrite of Copacobana as Her Name Was Twanky, Confident, Defying Gravity and Let Me Entertain You.  

widow twankey

Ian Adams befrocked once more this time as Dame Dot Twankey

There was a clever karaoke sketch from Wishee Washee with snatches of a whole host of songs and an ingenious song written by Ian Billings set to Offenbach’s Can Can, listing just about every district in Wolverhampton and surrounding area.

Writer and director Will Brenton, who also wrote last year’s Cinderella, kept things moving through an easy to follow script taking the audience with him from the opening line.

The few short weeks of panto are the most valuable time for theatres in so many ways. They provide a disproportionate amount of their annual income and even more important they are often the first theatre experience for many children, and panto is the chance to sell the magic of theatre to them, jopefully creating at least some of the next generation of theatre goers.

Did they succeed. Only time will tell, but my grandson loved it and all the children around me joined in every shout, every song, every cheer and boo, and were wide eyed and smiling at the end. And you can’t ask for more than that. To 07-01-23.

Roger Clarke 


A brief look at the origins of panto

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