Sleeping Beauty and the Beast
Ben Hales, James Dunnell-Smith, John Woodburn, and Joshua George Smith
Battersea Arts Centre
In 1900, J. Hickory Wood and Arthur Collins combined two well-known narratives for their new pantomime The Sleeping Beauty and the Beast at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane. The title has since slept for over a century, but is now revived and revitalised by Sleeping Trees as this year’s festive offering at Battersea Arts Centre.
Known for their panto mash-ups including Scrooge and the Seven Dwarfs and Goldilocks and the Three Musketeers, Sleeping Trees are well versed in playfully combining stories and characters to create engaging productions. This year’s Sleeping Beauty and the Beast straddles the world of pantomime and CBeebies as five cast members multi-role in show full of twists and turns.
As soon as the audience enter Battersea Arts Centre’s Council Chamber, they are transported into Sleeping Trees' annual Christmas slumber party complete with duvets, stars, dinosaurs and slides. Jamal, Jools, Joshua and John are back together, ready to create a brand-new show from scratch, but unfortunately James doesn’t want to play having spent the past two years penning his creative masterpiece. However, when the script appears to go missing, there’s no other option than to let the usual fun commence and grumpy James is forced to take on a whole manner of roles in a show inspired by stories found upon the bookshelf.
As the fabulous five start to play, the story of Sleeping Beauty and the Beast unfurls, which sees Jamal and Josh as Professors Belle and Beast running the Goodie-versity, a place where Villains learn how to mend their ways and graduate thanks to some assistance from Santa. But when the Beast and Santa are mysteriously potioned and fall asleep, scuppering the Gooduation Ceremony, Detective Sleeping Beauty is called upon to help save the day.
The play-within-a-play framing works well here, particularly as it enables younger audience members to navigate the cast’s multi-rolling as each character’s costume palette corresponds with that of the performer’s. Sleeping Beauty and the Beast might not follow the conventional plot structure of a pantomime, but it does successfully deconstruct the genre as Jools ensures all of the staples are ticked off on her panto checklist.
The audience is involved in almost every beat of the show, from helping to retrain the Villains with the “Reverse Boo!” and even naming the Ghost Gag’s Ghost. This engagement at such a young age is truly empowering, capturing the children’s imagination and incorporating it as a result of creative collaboration.
The audience also helps resolve the narrative as a plot twist worthy of The Mousetrap turns the panto into a thrilling Whodunnit after the characters are transported to Dreamland and must work out how to wake up in order to restore order.
James Dunnell-Smith, Jamal Franklin, Juliana Lisk, Joshua George Smith and John Woodburn provide a whole host of characters between them, with Lisk’s villainous Ofsted inspector summoning some of the most virulent boos Pantoland has ever heard and Woodburn’s funky Santa providing plenty of goofy giggles. Each understands the nuance required when performing to an audience as young as three years old and the whole cast captures the magic of theatre and wonderful wackiness of pantomime, even if the show's ninety-minute running time, including an interval, proves a little challenging for younger audience members.
In Sleeping Beauty and the Beast, Sleeping Trees has successfully created yet another daft and delightful Christmas show full of fun.
Reviewer: Simon Sladen