Eric Potts
First Family Entertainment
New Wimbledon Theatre

Matthew Kelly as Widow Twankey, David Badella as Abanazar and Jo Brand as the Genie of the Ring

London has seen three glorious Twankeys grace the pantomime stage over the past decade: Ian McKellen at the Old Vic, Clive Rowe at the Hackney Empire and now Matthew Kelly returns to the Damehood with his wonderful Widow at the New Wimbledon Theatre in First Family Entertainment's production of Aladdin.

No stranger to the cross-dressed damsel in a dress, Kelly is superb in the role as his flamingo-esque Twankey gurns her way through proceedings raising laughter with the simple manipulation of an eyebrow or the pouting of her lips. Kelly's Twankey is working class and proud and it is a real joy to see him return to the Dame role, having played King in Windsor last season and Ugly Sister in Southampton back in 2008.

Last time Aladdin was seen at the theatre in 2009, Pamela Anderson played the Genie of the Lamp and, although this year's star casting remains in Genie form, Jo Brand's mystical being is that of the ring, which enables her to trade insults with Abanazar and appear at regular intervals throughout the show.

Brand is at her best when outside the performative frame of pantomime, commenting on the peculiarities of the genre as she questions her role in proceedings. The celebrity as pantomime 'outsider' is something Wimbledon has perfected since 2010; however this year Brand's material seems somewhat lacking and, when left alone on stage in Act Two to deliver a short section of stand up, rather than excel, she fails to raise her usual laughs due to a poor selection of material.

Pantomime has always embraced celebrity and since the days of Drury Lane's Music Hall star casting, waves of comedians, pop stars, Australian soapstars and Gladiators have graced the pantomime stage. Post-millennial pantomime might be defined as the reign of the reality TV and television talent show star, with the New Wimbledon Theatre's production featuring Britain's Got Talent's Flawless as the Peking Police Force and Shaheen Jafargholi as the Genie of the Lamp.

Flawless whips the crowd into a frenzy with their street dance act, which in the second act takes the essence of UV to another level, whilst Jafargholi's ever-singing Genie adds a soulful layer of Otherness to the role and provides the opportunity for a series of wonderfully comic moments as a result of his inability to speak.

In fact, singing takes centre stage in this production with a cast that includes musical theatre stars Oliver Thornton’s fresh faced Aladdin and David Bedella's Abanazar full of snake-like charm. Both make their pantomime debuts, along with Brand, and bring great polish to the show, which is slick from start to finish, but for all its slickness, it is let down by a lack of spectacle.

Terry Parson's sets and costumes glitter and sparkle scene after scene, but the now run-of-the-mill flying carpet is somewhat of a disappointment in the ‘Home of London Pantomime’, as is the enchanted cave’s transformation sequence at the end of act one. For all the flames, pyrotechnics and smoke, Aladdin is severely lacking in state-of-the-art special effects and it is down to the stars, rather than spectacle, to deliver the wow factor.

Comedy is provided by South African Alan Committie, who plays his simpleton Wishee Washee with great warmth alongside Matthew Rixon's delightfully comic Major Pong. Together, Committie, Rixon and Kelly induce great amounts of comedy into the show, but many of the set pieces forgo the rule of three and are therefore bereft of a payoff.

Over-amplification can't match the audience's whoops and cheers in a pantomime that almost matches 2011's Dick Whittington, but for their tenth anniversary pantomime at the venue in 2014, the real icing on the cake will be for First Family Entertainment to deliver something no-one has seen before.

Reviewer: Simon Sladen

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