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Sleeping Beauty

George Wood
First Family Entertainment
Richmond Theatre
(2010)

Anita Dobson in Sleeping Beauty

As Richmond Theatre celebrates its 110th birthday, the tale of the girl who slept for 100 years graces the stage for the first time since 1950.

60 years have passed and 2010's Sleeping Beauty has definitely been worth the long wait. Pantomime has evolved greatly since the war, and whereas many modern pantomimes are lacking in comedy and audience participation as they mirror the Musical, this year's festive treat proves that the Musical Pantomime has not won its conquest quite yet.

If the quality of a pantomime is to be rated on how many laugh-out-loud moments are contained in its narrative, then Richmond is up there with the best. As Jangles the Jester, Tim Vine lives up to his reputation as the Punslinger and delivers his witty repartee with great gusto as Beauty's best friend. Vine is a panto natural and his big hearted Comic is a winner with the crowd. He commands the stage during the 'Twelve Days of Christmas' routine and has to battle with the audience's applause and calls of encore to get the show back on track. This front-cloth piece can be seen in theatres up and down the country over the panto season, and having been privy to the usual 'fairy for the top of the tree' and 'bra that was made to hold three', it is most refreshing to hear Vine's rather absurdist 'cartilage from a bear's knee' as the gift received on the first day of Christmas.

One of the production's key strengths is the strong script by George Wood. Each character is well defined and there are clear reasons behind each development in the narrative.

Act One begins with Princess Beauty's 18th birthday and then rewinds to her birth, thus engaging the audience with the characters and as they and the plot grow, so does the audience's affection for them. What this means is that by the time the wicked deed is done and Beauty falls asleep, we are ready for the quest narrative to take place, having already had our fill of romance resulting from the Prince and Beauty's first meeting. As the royal court choose to join Beauty in her slumber to avoid the misery should she not awake, Jangles decides to pursue her kidnapped Prince and in doing so becomes the real hero of the piece, even if he doesn't get the girl.

Director Fenton Gray has done a sterling job in bringing the script to life. They say that 90% of the direction is in the casting, and as Gray also plays the Dame, some may argue that the success of the production is entirely down to him.

Wood's script makes Nurse Penny a vital component of the narrative and in doing so she does not appear shoe-horned in, as is so often the case with this title. Gray's portrayal of the cross-dressed damsel is a delight to watch and her pièce de résistance comes during the second act when, as Jangles' accomplice, she enters Carabosse' lair disguised as a French beautician in order to help rescue the Prince and save the day.

As the Villain of the piece, Anita Dobson conjures up as many laughs as she does boos with her crazy antics. A truly original take on the Villain, Dobson's Carabosse is like a schizophrenic mad aunt with ADHD who's been at the gin. Her performance is thoroughly engaging, albeit exhausting to watch, and along with her spellbinding acting, she dances and sings her numbers in true glittering style, accompanied by her raven dancer minions.

In this version of the tale, Carabosse is not all she seems, and it transpires that her magic stems from a wicked dragon. If a Happy Ending is to be had, then the Prince must battle with the beast and render Carabosse powerless.

Projected onto a gauze, the fire-breathing dragon flies across the stage as Prince Antonio (Jon Robyns) does his bit for his beautiful Princess (Sophie Isaacs). Whereas other productions turn to 3D for such sequences, projection is a far superior medium as it eliminates the prospect of shadows, does not involve breaking the narrative to inform the audience to put on glasses, and means that actors can truly interact with the projection in question, whilst the entire stage is in use and no sense of depth is lost.

A charming set, vibrant musical numbers, luscious costumes and strong acting makes Sleeping Beauty the pantomime dreams are made of. With its perfect blend of comedy and compassion, story and spectacle, participation and plot, this production sets the gold standard for commercial producers the country over.

Playing until 16th January 2011

Reviewer: Simon Sladen