REVIEW: SINBAD THE SAILOR (Theatre Royal Stratford East) ★★★

This year, the intrepid panto crew of Stratford East’s Theatre Royal set sail for distant lands in search of adventure with their show, Sinbad the Sailor. As always, Director Kerry Michael gives us the best bits of this lovely old genre of theatre: real actors who can multi task, just enough audience participation and a great story but with none of the naffness of a celebrity-driven offering.

And they love to subvert a theme here in Stratford. We learn that Sinbad only writes the stories; it’s his sister, the plucky Sinbadda and her mate Funky Monkey who really do the adventuring; they just tell him all about it. He’s forced to confront his fears and set out on a quest, however, as he is in love with The Sultan’s daughter and must find a golden casket before baddie Naw-Ze-Uzz can get his evil mitts on it. Along with Sinbadda, Funky, Nurse and a disguised Princess, Sinbad has to deal with Naw-Ze-Uzz’s scheming and cheating. He’s found a warm-hearted but depressed Genie who reluctantly creates a storm to shipwreck them. Pirates add to the mayhem but of course, bravery and honesty win out in the end.

Pete Bishop and Kevin Baldwin’s animations push the story along nicely and there is some deft shadow play from the actors and illusion from Scott Penrose which all add an extra dimension to the show.  Designers Jenny Tiramani and Harriet Barsby do some very clever things with the ships which I shan’t reveal. Live music from Robert Hyman hits the rights notes (ouch! Look, it’s panto; you have to allow me one pun!)

The cast are all excellent, many taking on several roles. Sinbadda (Gabby Wong), Sinbad (Julian Capolei) and  puppeteer for Funky Monkey (Gemma Salter) have to keep energy levels high and remain just the right side of bouncy. As Green Genie Uz, Rina Fatania is adorable and hilarious and the pirates played by Alim Jayda and Josephine Melville are properly dastardly but not too scary for the little ones.

My gripes are minor: I wasn’t convinced a small puppet of Funky, although perfectly and energetically executed, was the best way to convey this role; I would simply  have preferred a bigger character. Also the sing-along song, referencing “Happy” (bizarrely exhorting everyone to “Cheer up now!”) wasn’t punchy and catchy enough for me.

Stand-out moments were the tap routine between the sultan and the ghost of his beloved wife and the self-help genie get-together. For some reason it’s become normal now to have an unnaturally high number of Eton-educated actors treading the boards and making it to Hollywood, so it’s a joy to see a line-up that truly represents everyone in this country.

Diversity, girl-power (scenes like this wouldn’t have seemed so important a mere year ago but 2016’s miserable news makes these issue spectacularly vital and important). More of this please: love indeed trumps hate.

Reviewed by Alison Bray
Photo: Sharron Wallace

SINDBAD THE SAILOR plays at the Theatre Royal Stratford East until 21 January 2017