Sleeping Beauty

Andrew Ryan
Martin Dodd for UK Productions
Sunderland Empire

Amy-Leigh Hickman (Prncess Rose) and Arthur Boan (Prince Philip)
Vicky Entwistle (Carabosse)
Bobby Crush (Nurse Nelly) and Andrew Agnew (Silly Billy)
Faye Tozer (Good Fairy)

Sleeping Beauty has the thinnest of stories: Princess is cursed by wicked fairy; after meeting handsome prince and falling in love at her birthday party, falls asleep for 100 years; another handsome prince comes along and kisses her; she wakes; they fall in love and live happily ever after.

Even with the addition of a Dame (the Princess’s nurse) and a comic (a palace servant, her friend), pantomime writers still have to flesh out the story by plot twists (usually involving the prince being kidnapped by Carabosse, the evil fairy) and the use of standard panto scenes.

This production does both, but the kidnapping and rescue are dealt with in just two scenes and the standards are somewhat truncated. The slosh scene—baking a cake for the Princess’s 18th birthday party—was singularly lacking in sloshiness, simply consisting of flour being blown over Silly Billy (Andrew Agnew) from a speaking tube, and a brief squirting of water at the audience. Eggs made an appearance but not a one was broken.

There was a nod in the direction of the take-off scene, a much shortened version of the drill scene usually performed in Dick Whittington and a foray into the reflection in a mirror scene beloved of teachers of mime, but most of the time the lack of plot was made up for by much music and dancing, including—inevitably!—Nurse Nelly (Bobby Crush) performing (on a small piano wheeled on specially) the music he was famous for back in the day and the Good Fairy (Faye Tozer) singing a Steps medley.

The music, singing and dancing are of a very high standard. Six professional dancers and eight Babes (from the Kathleen Davis Stage School at the performance I saw: two other dance schools alternate with them) do full justice to Phyllida Crowley-Smith’s excellent choreography and the gentlemen of the orchestra (three of them, but it sounded like more) keep the whole thing rocking.

(It was interesting that, as I left the theatre, I saw one woman turn to her friend and say, “It was more like a musical, wasn’t it?”)

Usually the second handsome prince is the grandson (or even great-grandson) of the first, the story of the lost Princess having been passed down through the generations, but in this production there’s only one and he is sent into the future. Cue special video projection effect as he flies, Superman-like, through one hundred tears. Although actually the Tardis was there too, perhaps to provide an opportunity for many “Doctor who? Doctor Who. What? No Who.” jokes.

And a very good effect it is too, so good that they used it twice more, once for him to cut away the briars which had grown round the palace in the intervening years and then for him to fight and kill a dragon sent by Carabosse, the latter with some quite scary pyro front of stage.

No one can fault the performances, those already mentioned along with Amy-Leigh Hickman as Princess Rose, Arthur Boan as Philip, probably the tallest Prince in Pantodom, Marcus Knibbs as the King and, in particular, Vicky Entwistle as the fabulously evil Carbosse—which must definitely be the best panto part for any actress—and, boy, did she relish every second of her evilness!

However this Sleeping Beauty doesn’t quite make it as a panto, mainly because of its attempts to compensate for the lack of a substantial storyline, attempts which don’t quite hang together. Paradoxically, given the storyline, it’s a bit too long and, at times, lost its main target audience, the kids, who signalled their drop in attention in that typically kid way: frequent visits to the toilet.

A piece of advice, if I may, for the powers-that-be at the Empire: don’t have the press in on the opening night. Give the show a chance to bed in and the director and performers the opportunity to see what works and what doesn’t, what needs sharpening up and, indeed, what needs cutting. It’s only fair on a hard-working company.

Reviewer: Peter Lathan