Sleeping Beauty

Berwick Kaler
York Theatre Royal
York Theatre Royal

David Leonard in Sleeping Beauty Credit: Robling Photography
Jack Lansbury, Martin Barrass & Howie Michaels in Sleeping Beauty Credit: Robling Photography
David Leonard & Suzy Cooper in Sleeping Beauty Credit: Robling Photography

If last year’s York Theatre Royal panto was a slightly muted but mostly celebratory affair—it saw the bow-out of Dame Berwick Kaler after four decades of madness—this year was always destined to be a trickier time for the team.

Kaler has stayed on to write and co-direct the show, and he makes appearances via the familiar video insert segments, one of which is a hit and the other a bit of a bum note. On the whole, that balance seems true of a show that struggles to find its feet in the absence of Kaler’s huge personality and sheer unpredictability.

The good news is that the other regulars are all back. David Leonard, in particular, brings all his star quality and gleeful evil as, well, Evil Diva, the wicked fairy. The energy and laugh count rise noticeably whenever he’s on stage, and he sets the tone by responding beautifully to a spectacularly-timed wolf whistle as he makes his first appearance. But even so, there’s a sense that he’s trying desperately to lift an audience which at times struggled to spot the (or any) genuinely funny bits.

But the thing is, I’m not sure it’s the audience’s fault. Often the cast find themselves delivering material with the shape and form of a gag, with all the elements in place except the punchline itself. Most of the regular ‘bits’ are present and correct, from the video inserts to the slop scene, to the meandering, aimless plot. But this year, the first half in particular seems underpowered, like no one can really figure out what’s missing, or what to do about it.

The second half has more of the drive and madcap energy expected of the Theatre Royal panto, with some brilliant non sequiturs including the sudden appearance of punks and ‘Pantoman’, the latter in the form of cast regular A J Powell. Jack Lansbury, a West End (and sometime panto) habitué, has more to do in the second half as romantic interest Tarquin Farquhar than in his act one turn as Sleeping Beauty’s father.

The plotless, often oddly mirthless first half sometimes threatens to turn to the kind of blue humour usually shunned by Kaler and company, but it has moments of the old, odd brilliance towards the end. Leonard and Powell’s body-swap comedy, for instance, gives us the glorious sight of Leonard in a scout’s outfit, solemnly processing across the stage carrying a gramophone playing… well, you’ll have to watch it yourself to find out which bonkers '90s hit it is. Act two also has more of a sense of purpose, and the songs are better, too. A J Powell, as ever, is one of the highlights, and his dancing is fantastic; he and Leonard make the most of their time as a double-act.

Martin Barrass is Queen Ariadne, Princess Beauty’s mother—sort of, and sort of not, playing the dame. He’s a bit cast adrift overall, and the interplay with Lansbury is lacking the tinge of danger that tended to be in the air when Barrass and Kaler were the heart of the show. Suzy Cooper is, as ever, superbly committed and energetic, but she’s got precious little comic material to work with here. She’s not permitted to play to her strengths except in a couple of moments with Leonard towards the end of each half, which really lift things.

Newcomer Howie Michaels sings very well, especially in act one closer "Rise Like A Princess", but again the comic material just isn’t rich enough for him to play with. The chorus of younger performers is occasionally brilliant and gives the show a bit of the ‘ah’ factor.

But the slop scene, with Lansbury performing Kaler’s role in dousing Barrass with bucket after bucket of water, is somewhat indicative of the whole: it feels like it’s there because it should be, not because anyone knows why—or how to make it funny.

Anthony Lamble’s set and costume design, Mark Jonathan’s lighting, Elliot Styche’s music and Grace Harrington’s choreography are all excellent as usual, and there are some nice moments of comedy facilitated by the design, which feels sturdier than the norm at York.

Having so wanted to enjoy the show, I came away feeling disappointed. Of course, Kaler’s Dame isn’t the only team member to have left since last Christmas: doubtless long-time co-director Damian Cruden’s absence is being felt by the cast as well. Matt Aston has stepped into the role as co-director with Kaler, and the team has clearly yet to find their way to the heart of the show. Aficionados tell me that the panto invariably changes unrecognisably between press night and the final bow towards the end of January, and I’m sure the cast will find more gags and hone the logics of the set-piece scenes by then. But for now, this panto feels like a halfway house between Kaler and whatever might come next, whereas going all-in, either for tribute or for transformation, might have made for a more satisfying show.

Reviewer: Mark Love-Smith

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