By Morgan Brind
A Little Wolf panto is something to savour. Ever since the company took over staging the Derby LIVE annual extravaganza, it has got better and better, culminating in the best dame accolade for Morgan Brind’s portrayal of Nurse Nancy Nightley in the 2021 production of Sleeping Beauty.
For 2022, Little Wolf has chosen to present a new version of Aladdin, written by Brind who is also co-producer and designer. It has the usual sparkle, glitzy set, razzamatazz and special effects. The only thing it falls down on slightly is comedy.
In these sensitive times, Brind and his team, who spend the whole year working on their pantos, have Widow Twankey as the owner of a pottery rather than a laundry. This allows Twankey and her son Aladdin to enact a slapstick scene in which pots slide down chutes and often smash to pieces on the floor.
Brind has few equals as dame. His extravagant range of frocks becomes increasingly outrageous as the show progresses. He is a master of the ad lib and he interacts superbly with children as well as an unsuspecting dad, Ashley, in the front row of the auditorium.
It turns out that Ashley cleans windows for a living. Brind cannot resist the quip: “imagine: a window cleaner ending up with an old scrubber!”
The other headliner in Aladdin is John Thomson. As Abanazar, he is a believable baddie who puts everything into the role. There are times when he goes off script; whether deliberate or not, the outcome leads to some of the funnier moments in the show.
There are references to some of his previous roles: there is a line about the TV series Cold Feet and on one occasion he appears as The Fast Show’s Louis “Niiiice” Balfour. Thomson, an accomplished drummer, is also given the opportunity to show off his skills on percussion.
But there are few guffaws in Aladdin. On the day I saw the show, it was difficult to decide whether the material was sub-standard, not delivered properly or if the audience was suffering a hangover from England’s World Cup defeat against France.
The decision to write out characters such as Aladdin’s brother Wishee Washee and the two policemen means there is no foil for Brind; the gags are shared among the cast rather than being in the hands of a true comedian.
There is plenty to admire, though, in Aladdin. Kristian Cunningham gives a creditable performance in the lead role: he has a strong voice and his trip on a flying carpet which soars over the front rows of the arena is a highlight.
Anna Soden delights in the twin roles of the Genie and Siri of the Ring, switching quickly from one to the other. David Djemal (the Sultan), Nicola Martinus-Smith (Princess Amirah) and gymnast Ben Tanner (an acrobatic Marmaduke the monkey) all add to the spectacle in their own way.
Aladdin will no doubt enhance Little Wolf’s reputation as one of this country’s top panto producers. On another day, the humour may be more to the audience’s liking.
* This review originally appeared on the British Theatre Guide website