Whatever it is there's clearly something about Poole that suits Chris Jarvis very well indeed - the CBeebies star is back in panto for the fourth year in a row writing, directing and playing the Dame in Aladdin. As much as anyone, Chris is helping hone what is fast becoming a 'house style' for pantomime at Lighthouse.
“Well, I think because it is made in Poole, by Poole people and it’s for the area, and it’s the only show that Lighthouse makes itself, it just has so much passion,” he explains.
“I notice it from everybody, the team at Lighthouse, the crew here, it’s something we all look forward to. The cast get it as well. I think it has been bubbling away for a while and now we have the confidence and, thanks to more people coming, we have the money to invest in the show properly and deliver.
“In some ways it’s probably more like the pantos of old that people remember – the spectacle is back and the ambition from every department is to make sure that it’s always even better than last time.”
Last year’s brilliant production of Cinderella garnered a Panto Award for Ugly Sisters Andrew Pollard and Alim Jadavji – both of whom are back again this year in Aladdin – as well as two other nominations including Best Panto. That it lost out to Ian McKellen’s much-feted Mother Goose is no disgrace, but is the pressure on for Aladdin to go one better this year?
“That’s a very good question, but as with television programmes you don’t make them to get awards, you make television programmes to get audience figures, and I think it’s the same here. We’re not doing this for awards, but the awards are an indication of excellence and uniqueness and those are things that we are striving to get into the show.
“It was a wonderful compliment to have three nominations and to win one and when I won the Best Principal Boy (in Dick Whittington at Lighthouse in 2018) that was a great achievement, but really it’s the achievement of everybody involved. We are only as good as the costumes we wear, the songs we sing, the lights we’re lit in, the sets we’re standing on, the props we’re holding. It’s a massive team effort and if only one part of the pantomime is good and the rest of it isn’t, you’re sunk.
“What I love about panto at Lighthouse is the commitment – and it starts at the top – and the ownership that everybody takes of it with the intention of it being excellent.”
So, what can audiences expect from Aladdin this year?
“It’s the very traditional telling of Aladdin with a slight difference in that it’s set in a different time zone to the usual panto and therefore in a different place, but it’s all the same humour and slapstick that you would expect. The characters are familiar, the emphasis is on great comedy storytelling and it is very much in the style of last year with three returning actors and the same team behind the scenes.”
But of all the big panto titles, Aladdin has been more problematic than others with some productions criticised over cultural insensitivity, particularly around casting. It’s something that Chris as writer and director, and the creative team Production Designer James Smith and Musical Supervisor Darren Reeves have been acutely aware of.
“We’ve been mindful of who we’ve cast in certain roles, but we’ve only employed the best people for those parts,” he says. “There is nobody in this cast for any other reason than they’re brilliant and they’re going to blow us away, I’m really excited with the cast.
“I may have got this very wrong, but I think there is very little from the original story of what people remember being a great Aladdin panto that we have had to remove. Panto is constantly evolving and all the Chinese motifs have gone, but the old jokes were taken out a long time ago – I certainly didn’t have them in the last Aladdin I did ten years ago.
“At the heart of this pantomime is a reflection of Poole. I think that what has made the panto good in recent years is that it reflects Poole – the people on the stage, the language, the jokes, the locale, even some of the costumes are to do with Poole – and I think that reflecting your audience is the most important thing.”
Nothing in the show speaks of Poole quite like the costume Chris will wear as Widow Twankey – it’s a tribute to the RNLI for its 200th anniversary next year. The life saving charity has its headquarters in Poole and has been fully supportive of James Smith’s amazing costume design with the finished frock due to feature in a bicentennial exhibition.
“I’m so thrilled,” says Chris, “because I knew we were going to be respectful with that costume, but what I didn’t know was how the RNLI would react so I’m incredibly grateful and in awe of the RNLI for going with it – it shows a great sense of humour and trust.
“And don’t ask me about the details – you’ll have to wait to see – but you can be sure it’s going to be wonderful!”
:: Written and directed by Chris Jarvis, who appears as Widow Twankey, with Production Designer James Smith and Musical Supervisor Darren Reeves, Aladdin features Ionica Adriana as Princess Jasmine and Bournemouth-born Josh Haberfield as the comic character Wishee-Washee with Stephanie Walker as Spirit of the Ring. Pantomime Award winners Andrew Pollard and Alim Jadavji, whose winning double act as the ugly sisters in Cinderella last year stole the show, are back at Lighthouse playing the villain Professor Pocus and Genie of the Lamp respectively. In his pantomime debut, the title role is played by West End actor Benjamin Armstrong.
:: Aladdin opens on Thursday 7 December and runs until New Year’s Eve. Tickets are on sale now at www.lighthousepoole.co.uk, or call 01202 280000.