AFTER last year’s jaunt off-piste with The Hunchback Of Notre Dame, York’s biggest community pantomime returns to more familiar ground with the Peking panto perkiness of Aladdin at the Joseph Rowntree Theatre.

Running from Saturday to December 16, the Rowntree Players' rollicking romp of a panto is written and directed, as usual, by chairman Howard Ella in partnership with Andy Welch, who will play the Genie.

"Turning a well-known fable like Aladdin isn’t as straightforward as you’d think” says Howard. "With Disney’s cartoon and the West End musical there are high expectations around both the staging and the story.

York Press:

Sara Howlett being put through her paces as she rehearses her role as PC Wan in Aladdin

"The pantomime plot of Aladdin is very different to all other re-tellings of the Arabian Nights. For a start, it’s set in China! Aladdin the pantomime is possibly the most traditional of all pantomimes – first performed in 1788 – and although we embrace a lot of the elements of the original stories, there is much that would fall out of favour in a modern stage show.

"So we’ve taken a few swipes at modernisation. Gone is Widow Twankey’s Chinese Laundry as she upgrades to owning an entire department store. Gone too are many of the stereotypical Chinese references replaced with contemporary, but equally cheesy, gags."

The core story is still intact, as is the traditional magic carpet, reassures Howard. Should you need a crash course in Aladdin, here goes: in the depths of China, the evil Abanazar will stop at nothing to gain control of every magical artefact in the world. All that stands in his way are a cave of wonders, a rather strong willed princess and the heroic Aladdin. Assisted by a magic lamp, a flying carpet, an all-powerful genie and the chaotic comedy contributions of Widow Twankey and Wishee Washee, there is no way Abanazar can win. Is there?

Ella's cast will be led by Marie-Louise Surgenor as Aladdin; Graham Smith is doing dame damage as usual as Widow Twankey; Gemma McDonald will be Wishee Washee; Steve Carter, Abanazar; Hannah King, Princess So-Shi; Andy Welch, Genie; Geoff Walker, Emperor; Sian Davies, Spirit of the Ring; Sarah Howlett, PC Wan, and Annie Donaghy (Huge singer Big Ian Donaghy's daughter), PC Tu.

York Press:

Director Howard Ella, left, working in the Rowntree Players rehearsal room with Andy Welch (Genie) and Steve Carter (Abanazar)

Ella and Welch are joined in the production team by musical director Jessica Douglas and choreographer Ami Carter. "We have a fantastic team who work tirelessly, complementing the talent of the cast with skills in engineering, carpentry, needlework and scenic painting," says an appreciative Howard. "We always throw down the gauntlet but some of the requirements of our construction crew, along with the stage management team at the Joseph Rowntree Theatre, really do stretch the skills of our volunteer force.

"Every year they step up and achieve what's on the page and therefore every year we try to raise the bar a little higher. I think, though, that this years bar will be hard to beat."

Performances will be at 2pm and 7.30pm on Saturday; 2pm, Sunday; 7.30pm, Monday to Friday; 2pm (sold out) and 7.30pm, next Saturday, and tickets are selling as fast as Abanazar finally falls on 01904 501935 or at

"We’re very proud of being one of the country’s oldest community theatre groups and the pantomime sits at the heart of what Rowntree Players do and who we are," says Howard. "This year’s show is set to be our best attended – the opening matinee has sold out already – and, arguably, it's our most accomplished pantomime yet. The people of York would be mad to miss it!"