As the King’s Theatre shows its ninth incarnation of the popular pantomime, Aladdin, in its 106 year history, press manager Catherine Bromley takes a look back at the enduring appeal of the ‘legend of the lamp’ at the King’s.
Aladdin: a potted history
The King’s Theatre’s association with Aladdin stretches back to 1908, two years after the theatre first opened. Produced by Wilmot Edson’s London Company, Sir Winston Churchill was amongst its visitors, according to the University of Glasgow’s Scottish Theatre archives.
Many people think the original tale of Aladdin and His Wonderful Lamp is from One Thousand and One Nights, the 9th century book that was translated into English as The Arabian Nights. However, it’s now widely accepted that Aladdin wasn’t included in One Thousand and One Nights. It was in fact an original Middle Eastern story that was added to one of the many European translations of The Arabian Nights during the 18th century.
The 18th century
The success of this story inspired a pantomime version of Aladdin at London’s Covent Garden in 1788, although it was presented in a form we would find almost unrecognisable today. Different version of the tale continued to appear on various British stages sporadically throughout the following century. That was until the theatrical impresario and prolific writer Henry J. Byron created Aladdin, the Wonderful Scamp for the Strand in 1861. Told entirely in rhyming couplets, Byron’s burlesque version of the story was a huge success, and gave birth to the pantomime we know and love today.
Indeed, it's a pantomime so beloved that even Sir Ian McKellen took on the role of Widow Twankey, at the Old Vic in 2004. Of McKellen’s performance, one reviewer at the Telegraph said, "I don't think I have ever seen an actor more manifestly delighted to be on stage".
The 20th century and beyond
After the show’s debut at the King’s Theatre in 1908, Aladdin had to wait another thirty years to return to the venue, this time in a provincial touring version by Emile Littler of the powerful Littler family of theatre owners and producers. The show returned again in the winter of 1953/54 as an in-house production overseen by Stewart Cruikshank, whose grandfather built the King’s Theatre fifty years before.
There was another gap of more than two decades until a new production of Aladdin came to the theatre in 1977/78, which saw the Scottish variety great Johnny Logan receive top billing. Even while the golden age of Scottish variety was winding down in this period, its traditions were starting to pick up in the ever more popular Christmas pantomime. Indeed, another legend of the ‘old school’ graced the stage in this decade, namely Stanley Baxter.
Current King’s panto star Allan Stewart said of Stanley: “He was the most famous Edinburgh’s King’s Dame. I doubt very much if he did more than four or five pantos there, although they were probably among the most successful pantos ever done at the theatre. He was just an amazing Dame to see perform. My legs are likened to his every year.”
Allan Stewart, who has been in panto since 1975, first started at the King’s in 1989 opposite Max Boyce. He’s been a mainstay of the modern era at the theatre having appeared in all four of the show’s subsequent incarnations of Aladdin at the King’s. Indeed, Stewart’s time with the King’s and particularly Aladdin, has come to exemplify the modern Scottish pantomime.
Aladdin is currently being performed at the King’s Theatre Edinburgh until Sunday January 18. For more information call the box office on 0131 529 6000.