Beauty and the Beast
Little Wolf Entertainment
If the mark of a great pantomime is when the whole audience gasps open-mouthed at a moment of pure theatricality, then Little Wolf's latest production at the Derby Arena certainly ticks the box for festive gold.
Over the past five years, the production company has treated Loughborough Town Hall with shows that set the standard for regional pantomime and in their first season at the cavernous Derby Arena, they manage to bring a sense of intimacy and community.
Taking its lead from the Arena's velodrome surroundings, Beauty and the Beast opens with the Tour de France as bicycles race around the auditorium to the sounds of Queen with Idle Jacques's gang responding "Right on track" whenever he asks.
Known to many as Mr Bloom, CBeebies' Ben Faulks is the perfect panto Comic, capturing the innocence, naivity and excitement of a young boy. Never patronising, but always embracing, Faulks's Jacques exudes warmth and is at ease whether engaging in slapstick, leading the songsheet or getting covered in slosh.
As his mother, writer, designer and co-producer Morgan Brind is one of the best Dames in Pantoland. Dressed in an array of costumes from baked goods to ice cream and French flags to champage bottles, Betty Brioche lights up the stage whenever she appears with Brind's vast experience ensuring the audience is always kept onside.
When Jacques and Betty decide to make a special banana loaf cake to celebrate the return of Belle's father, the results are a sublime scene of silliness with slosh and puns a plenty. The recipe's mix of verbal dexterity, physicality and gunge makes the scene one of the freshest of its kind with plenty of scope for the occasional ad-lib and aside.
This zany cartoon-like comedy is expertly balanced in a production that is strong on story and offers many a magical moment. Brind's set is one of the most beautiful in all of Pantoland, encrusted in glitter and capturing the essence of the genre perfectly. As a clearing in the forest parts, the Beast's Castle is slowly revealed and takes the audience on an adventure from exterior to interior as it revolves before their very eyes.
But the real moment of pantomime magic occurs at the triumphant conclusion to the show's narrative which sees the Beast soar across the audience and return to human form. The detail and precision in which this is executed is just one of many reasons why Little Wolf Entertainment is one of the most exciting companies in the industry at present.
There is real tenderness between Nathan Turner's majestic Beast and Louise Olley's fine-voiced Belle, and as they teach each other to read and dance as part of their courtship, the production embraces the romance narrative without being too oversentimental.
As the Villain of the piece, Gwen Taylor makes for a wicked Enchantress, who once ruled victorious and vows to return to the throne. This narrative enables the character's integration whilst exposing her jealousy of Belle as she looks set to break the Beast's curse. Strong on the role's comedic side, Taylor appears uneasy during her musical numbers, which are otherwise full of charm.
Robert Traynor's loving father, Thomas Bird's put-upon La Fool and Aston Dobson's macho Gaston complete the cast in a production that balances panto conventions with an expectation of Disneyana.
To borrow from Idle Jacques's gang, Little Wolf Entertainment is 'right on track' for yet another bumper season with Beauty and the Beast heralding a new era for pantomime in Derby.
Reviewer: Simon Sladen