Wolverhampton Grand panto stars conjure up excitement ahead of Aladdin
The festive season has started to stir in Wolverhampton's Grand Theatre this week, as the cast and creatives of their 2022 pantomime officially launched Aladdin.
Panto has always been embedded into the Grand and its legacy still stands strong today, as ticket sales for Aladdin have been booming.
Adrian Jackson, chief executive and artistic director at the theatre, said: "The Grand Theatre has a rich history of producing pantomime, from the theatre's opening season in 1894, panto was placed firmly at the heart of the annual programme.
"It has been my intention to return to in-house pantomime, and this year the ambition has become a reality.
"I am delighted Aladdin will be a Wolverhampton Grand Theatre production and since announcing our cast a few weeks ago, we have received wonderful feedback and ticket sales have increased significantly."
Excitement within the cast is palpable, all of whom have jumped at the chance to perform during the festive season.
Michael Greco, who is best known for his role as Beppe in EastEnders and now plays Abanazar, said: "Panto is just a good time. The last four or five Christmases, I've sat at home not doing anything and thinking I would have loved to have done panto. So this is just perfect."
Reflecting on his first memory of seeing a pantomime, Michael added: "I was six, and I didn't know that it was always a man who played the dame, I just thought it was a very butch woman!
"For me that stuck out. I also remember booing the baddy a lot, and that's the thing about playing the baddy, it's great. The more they boo you, the more you're doing your job."
As a devoted Chelsea fan, Michael also had the privilege of meeting Diego Costa, Wolves's latest signing, when the cast visited Molineux last month.
"Even though he was only with Chelsea for two or three years he's always a big favourite of Chelsea fans because he's just such a character," he said.
"We loved him. So to see him at Molineux and just to say hello - I took a picture with him. I don't normally ask people for a photo but I had to have a picture with Costa because he's brilliant.
"And I know he's playing for Wolves, but I want him to do really well at Wolves because I just love him."
CBeebies presenter Ben Cajee, who plays Aladdin, is also excited to take on such an iconic pantomime role.
Ben said: "It's really exciting. I've been really busy so I haven't had too much time to worry about it, which in a way is a blessing.
"This is big - it's seven weeks - two weeks of rehearsals and five weeks of shows, with 60 shows in that time.
"It's going to be full-on, all of my mates who have done pantos have said you're going to be absolutely shattered.
"I'm looking forward to it and it'll be a unique experience. It's a bit of light relief and an opportunity for people to come together with their friends and just have a bit of a laugh."
Ian Adams, who plays Widow Twankey, added: "I love pantomime because of the interaction with the audience.
"It's also about that family thing, where anyone from five to 95 can go to enjoy it because there's something in there for it."
Tam Ryan, who won Best Comic at the 2022 UK Pantomime Associate Awards for his role in Cinderella at the Grand last year, added: "Theatre is brilliant for kids, especially in this modern age.
"My kids would sit in front of an iPad for 24 hours if I let them do that. What theatre can do is invigorate the senses a bit more, which you can't do otherwise. There's nothing quite like live theatre.
"I think that's why panto's really important from an audience perspective - it gets kids involved from an early age and there is still something magical about seeing a story unfold that's not in 2D.
"We can actually bring it to life and hopefully they can relate to the characters. It's a powerful thing."
For cast members Sofia Anné and Ian Billings, who play Princess Jasmine and The Notary respectively, acting in their home town is particularly special.
Sofia said: "It's amazing. This is my first pantomime and it's at home, on the big stage. I've watched productions here, and now to be on stage, it's incredible."
Ian, who has lived in Tettenhall for over 20 years, added: "I wrote the pantomime for the Grand in 1997, when Cannon and Ball were here.
"Panto is so important because children come to see it and will remember it for the rest of their lives. That's why we have to do it right and do it as best as we can."
One of his most memorable pantomime moments, having been involved in 53 pantomimes during his career, was when Snow White took a bite of the poisoned apple and rolled off stage into the orchestra pit.
He vividly remembers one child piping up from the audience: "Well, I tried to tell her."
Aladdin is at Wolverhampton's Grand Theatre from December 3 to Jan 7. For information and tickets visit grandtheatre.co.uk