Swankey Twankey – dressed to impress


Audiences and critics alike have been loving our magical family pantomime Aladdin. The in-house production is packed with references to the town in which it was made - Poole - particularly in the costumes created by our talented Production Designer James Smith. In this special blog, he explains the story behind the designs...

It became very apparent very early on that, while we were telling a traditional version of Aladdin, we had to be very sensitive about the way we staged the production and pay special attention to the casting, the set design and costume design.

In the British pantomime tradition Aladdin has usually been set in China and often with references to its culture in scenery and costume that could no longer be considered appropriate. In our 21st century telling of this story I realised that it was near impossible to hire costumes for Aladdin that didn’t have a Chinese reference, so I had to start a design process and get a set of new costumes made.

Born, raised and living in Poole, I feel I know what the town represents and together with Chris Jarvis (director and writer), we try our hardest to ground our pantomimes in Poole as much as we can. Having a new version of Aladdin to tell, I thought this was a great opportunity to design Widow Twankey’s wardrobe, along with the Genie and the new character Professor Pocus, and where possible give a nod to our beautiful hometown.

My best friend Anthony Bishop, who sadly passed away two years ago, was a legend in theatre and a massive supporter of the RNLI. I spent nearly every Open Day with him at the RNLI headquarters and the organisation was a great help in supporting his last wishes, so I wanted to thank it in a unique way. I know how important the RNLI is to Poole and with its 200th anniversary next year it was a no-brainer to create a costume in its honour.

Another costume showcases the origins of the Scout movement on Brownsea Island.

Widow Twankey’s wardrobe also includes the Worker costume, which had to be colourful and give Chris the movement he needed, and the Laundry costume, another of my favourites. Chris is a great puppeteer and wanted a costume that he could use with a puppet. The costume grew from there, with a snake that lives in a pile of dirty clothes in a washing basket. Then I covered the costume in bubbles to represent the laundry. It’s not the easiest costume to move in, but it looks great on stage!

I wanted Widow Twankey to fly after the magic carpet to try to help Aladdin save Jasmine. In most versions of the story the whole family just arrive, even though only Aladdin has gone on the carpet. After much discussion, Chris and I decided to dress Twankey as a house. I’m sure people find that strange at first, but Chris’ script makes sense of the costume with the jokes he has created. Then he is handed balloons and the audience gets the reference, which explains the flight sequence.

The costumes not only help tell the story of our panto, they also have their own tales to tell. Another Twankey frock came into being as a nod to our new King, after all it’s not every year we witness a coronation! As the Twankey family becomes rich a frock showcases the new 50p, the first to feature the head of King Charles III.

And the finale costume is a nod to my personal panto hero, the wonderful Danny La Rue. It’s a large frock, totally over-the-top, full of gold and feathers, and incredibly glamorous, which is what Danny was famous for.

While it was great to design a new wardrobe for Chris as Widow Twankey, as well as the Genie and Professor Pocus, along with dressing everyone else, none of it would have been possible without the amazing designer Scott McKenzie and his team at Molly Limpets, who has taken my designs, realised them, made them, and created costumes far greater than I ever could have dreamt of.

I think we’ve set a high bar with Aladdin, so I am already thinking hard about what other local references I can create next year for the Dame in the Lighthouse production of Dick Wittington. I can’t wait to see what we make!

(by James Smith)

photo by Jayne Jackson

drawings by James Smith

Sketching the Dame...

Design for Widow Twankey's RNLI dress
James' tribute to the first Scout Camp held on Brownsea Island in 1907
Widow Twankey's glamorous transformation dress
James' design for the newly wealthy Widow Twankeyey
James' idea for Widow Twankey's flight dress
Widow Twankey's finale dress - a tribute to James' panto hero, Danny La Rue