Gala Theatre, Durham
My first panto of the 2012 season and it sets the bar high.
The last time I saw Sleeping Beauty at the Gala was in 2007, before Simon Stallworthy took over the writing and direction of the venue’s pantos, and it was, to be kind, not terribly successful.
This time it was very different: two bars into the overture the audience started clapping along and from then on their involvement was total.
Stallworthy has played with the story a little. Gone is wicked fairy Carabosse, replaced by wicked sorcerer Scorchard, local actor Neil Armstrong back again to play—with gleeful gusto—the villain the Gala audience loves to hate. And no longer does the Beauty herself (Princess Aurora, played by Christina Cuttell) live in the Palace but, to hide her from Scorchard, she is brought up with Dame Miriam (Steve Fortune) and her son Silly Billy (Paul Hartley) in their cottage in the woods, little knowing her real parentage—which will, of course, be revealed on her 18th birthday—which gives her the chance to meet, incognito, Prince Roger in the woods.
(Cue jokes about Roger the Prince which went well above the kids’ heads but delighted the adults!)
In fact, there is plenty of comedy here, knockabout and verbal, including the obligatory slosh scene (loads of goo as Miriam and Silly Billy bake a birthday cake). Both Hartley and Fortune very quickly establish a great relationship with the audience, Hartley mainly with the kids and Fortune with the adults. I loved his recurring flirtation with his “boyfriend” in the audience (who, incidentally, really played along on press night) and it was all the more funny because Fortune is the kind of dame which I always feel is the most successful—a bloke in a frock.
The romance has its place but doesn’t become too sloppy for the kids. Cuttell and Ian Curran (Prince Roger) look good together and sing beautifully—but why, oh why do they have to sing in false American accents? It really does jar on me but I suppose kids are used to it, perhaps even expect it.
David Redgrave plays a bumbling King Tickle and his recurring joke (getting a word wrong twice before hitting on the right one) worked every time so that you could feel the audience wondering “What’s he going to say this time?” every time he spoke.
Samantha Phyllis Morris makes a sweet and delightful Fairy Mesuline, the four professional dancers are great and the kids from the Gala Stage School have much more to do than the juveniles usually have—and they can act as well as dance and sing!
Perfectly appropriate costumes complement a traditional and attractive set—very smooth and rapid changes—and, at a time when many pantos are becoming more and more high-tech with Bogglevision, animatronics and so on, the video dragon proves that what you might call mid-tech can be just as effective.
Sleeping Beauty is a great beginning to my panto season. The others are going to be hard-pressed to measure up.
Reviewer: Peter Lathan