There was a was remarkable spectacle at Cardiff Arms Park almost 130 years ago, when on Thursday 23 January 1889, Aladdin’s XV took the field to play Dick Whittington’s XV. With the Chinese Professor of Magic, Abanazar, at full back and Widow Twankey and the Emperor Congou in the pack, Aladdin’s team, drawn from the pantomime cast at the Theatre Royal, was a formidable combination. Dick Whittington’s XV, representing the Grand Theatre, was led by Idle Jack and, allegedly, fielded 16 players – presumably 15 plus the cat. The South Wales Daily News reported that the teams were cheered on by a ‘tremendous crowd’ that included the full cast from both theatres. The star of the afternoon was Mr Luke Forster also known as Abanazar. The report does not reveal whether he used his powers of magic but, through his efforts, Aladdin’s XV triumphed …by a try and 4 minors to nil. Not to be outdone, Mr E W Colman, the Grand Theatre’s Idle Jack, was carried from the field on the shoulders of his supporters to celebrate …the run of match from his own 25 to the Royal 25 yard line.
Behind the gaiety this was serious business as the two theatres vied to capture the crowds that flooded into Cardiff each night to attend the pantomimes. Glamorgan Archives holds a collection of playbills used to promote the performances of the pantomime at the Theatre Royal.
Situated on the corner of Wood Street and St Mary Street, a site later occupied by the Prince of Wales Theatre, the Theatre Royal was built in 1878. In its pomp it held up to 2000 people in an opulent auditorium upholstered with red velvet. Aladdin and His Wonderful Lamp was the eighth pantomime to be staged at the Theatre. Through the array of playbills produced for its run, from December 1888 to early February 1889, we can see that it was one of the biggest and most lavish productions of the year. In an effort to attract the crowds the playbills provided details of the cast and a summary of each scene with details of the settings and the acts on show. Every effort was made to fill the theatre night after night, with special trains laid on from Swansea, Merthyr and Rhymney with reduced fares for those purchasing theatre tickets at the station on boarding the train.
Billed as the …most splendid pantomime in Wales, Aladdin and His Wonderful Lamp had twelve scenes, each with ornate scenery depicting streets and markets in China, Aladdin’s Cave, the Flying Palace and the Home of Sphinx. In the reviews published in the local newspapers the scene set in the Halls of the Alhambra, was described as the piece de resistance. Each scene had its lead act and in the Halls of Alhambra the lead was taken by the Sisters Wallace, Fannie, Emmie and Nellie and …their wonderful song and dance specialities. They were supported by the comedians Sawyer and Ellis (described as extraordinary double top boot dancers) as two policemen …who put the House in roars. If that was not enough, the scene closed with the ‘Beautiful Ballet of the Months’ performed by sixty dancers – one of three ballets staged during the performance. The stars of the pantomime were Miss Howe Carewe, described as …a most charming Aladdin and Miss Marie Clavering as the Princess. They were supported by Luke Forster and Frank Irish as Abanazar and Widow Twankey. The lead players were just the tip of the iceberg with the playbills identifying a cast of 30 actors plus an array of supporting roles and dancers.
There are eight playbills at Glamorgan Archives for Aladdin and His Wonderful Lamp and they show how the pantomime was adapted and changed during its two month run. The aim was to appeal to all ages and refresh the acts, songs and dances so that people would come back over and over again. For example, by the end of January a set of acrobats and a comic football match had been incorporated into the performance. It was also the practice for the lead actors to be given a benefit night and there are playbills to advertise the nights identified in January for Miss Howe Carewe and others. However, there were signs that all was not well. By January, the playbills confirmed that Marie Clavering had been replaced by Miss Florence Bankhardt, who had arrived …direct from the New Opera House, Chicago, to take the part of the Princess. There were also signs that the comedians were under pressure to improve their act – with mixed results. Commenting on the new material introduced by Frank Irish as Widow Twankey, the South Wales Daily News welcomed the comic account of the Swansea and Cardiff football match but was more circumspect about references to ‘Adam and the fig leaves’.
The fact of the matter was that, although Aladdin was hailed as the finest pantomime staged at the Theatre Royal, there was now a new rival for the pantomime audience in the form of The Grand Theatre of Varieties on Westgate Street. Opened in the previous year, The Grand was staging its first pantomime and its owners were intent on impressing. The Grand was a bigger and more lavish theatre than the Royal and described as one of the most beautiful of its kind. It had also committed an enormous budget to finance its first pantomime, Dick Whittington and His Cat. In late January 1889 the Western Mail reported that there were still thousands flocking each night to The Grand, with many unable to gain admission. The newspaper concluded:
The success is due without a shadow of a doubt, to the all-round excellence of everything that goes to make up the pantomime.
It seems that Aladdin’s XV may have won the game at Cardiff Arms Park. However, the Theatre Royal, despite heroic efforts, came second in the battle of pantomimes 130 years ago in Christmas 1888. Did someone say ‘Oh no they didn’t’? I’m afraid that the evidence suggests ‘Oh yes they did’!
Tony Peters, Glamorgan Archives Volunteer
The playbills for the productions at the Theatre Royal between 1885 and 1895, including ‘Aladdin and his Wonderful Lamp’, can be seen at Glamorgan Archives, reference D452. The newspaper reports can be found on the Welsh Newspapers Online website. The report for the Cardiff Arms Park match is in the South Wales Daily News for 24 January 1889.