A pantomime specialist tells Piers Grimley Evans of his plans to teach Dubai kids the difference between good and evil

This is a tricky time of year to puzzle out the Brits. At Christmas, their workaday nation morphs at Clark Kent-speed into the personification of community spirit, ancient customs and even - gasp! - a rich culinary heritage.

At the very heart of the mystery is panto - a theatrical feast of cross-dressing, cheesy gags and raucous audience participation that has delighted British audiences for centuries.

"It's an old-fashioned way of having an enormous amount of fun," says Stephen Holroyd, the director flown in to bring the authentic feel of Crimbo to the Madinat.

"But it also teaches kids the difference between good and evil - and that good always triumphs."

He adds that it is easy to distinguish the goodies and baddies because they still enter the stage from the left and from the right - just one of the echoes of ancient theatrical convention still to be found in modern panto.

But for the uninitiated quite a lot else could also require explanation. While Christmas pantos now run in Australia and even South Africa, the form still meets blank incomprehension elsewhere. In the States, for instance, the tradition of a Principal Boy (who is actually a girl) and a Pantomime Dame (who is actually a man) is highly suspect.

Yet Holroyd is confident he can delight British aficionados - and win a few converts - with a full-on production that he has specially written for UAE audiences.

"I chose Aladdin because it is one of the two bestselling stories," he says. "There is no blue humour and we have also put in a few in-jokes for people who live in Dubai."

Holroyd describes himself as a pantomime specialist, "because you have to be a specialist".

He is now 51, but has been in pantos for almost 40 years. He comes to Dubai fresh from setting up Jack and the Beanstalk at the Theatre Royal Brighton, just one of the 3 or 4 pantos he directs every year.

Aladdin in Dubai, though, presents a special challenge. Most UK productions are cast in February or March, but Holroyd's team was only assembled in September and must be ready for Boxing Day. To pose for the Gulf News photographer, the actors interrupt an exacting 8am to 10pm rehearsal schedule.

Meanwhile, Holroyd is putting the lighting and stage crew through their paces with brisk instructions, a beadily intense stare and a general air of potentially explosive perfectionism.

"He is an absolute genius," an actor confided to me in a whisper. "Here, I think has to do a bit of teaching."

Overall, though, the entire team exudes bright-eyed enthusiasm. "Dubai is normally the worst place in the world to organise anything, but this has gone incredibly smoothly," says the youthful Irish production manager Brian Hall.

To "big up the Madinat" with his first full-scale, traditional panto, Hall has helped assemble a startling mix of personalities.
In conformity with Holroyd's conviction that the hero should be "small and cheeky", Aladdin is a curvaceous Buckinghamshire hoofer with a tungsten showbiz grin.

The genie of the lamp, on the other hand, is a 24-year-old professional breakdancer called Leeroy, who is so unambiguously 'street' that he chats unironically about 'his crew' back in Coventry. "It's the first time I've acted, but put it down that I'm a natural," he says. "I worked in a holiday camp in 2000, so that taught me how to be cheesy."

This gets a mild hiss of disapproval from the rest of the cast. "Yes, but it's brie not cheddar," says a man in a lampshade hat.

This is the Emperor of China, a tenor called Paul Arden-Griffith brought in partly for his show-stopping voice. He supplies a few unprintable pantomime anecdotes as well as the intriguing insight that all pantomime costumes are known as 'frocks'.

All said, despite the myth that show-people cultivate that they are selflessly devoted to their audiences' enjoyment, everyone seems to be having a suspicious amount of fun. Indeed, they seem to be looking forward to the show almost as much as a homesick Brit like me.