It’s lovely, isn’t it, when it happens? So lovely, in fact, that in the moment of its passing we should all stop and see it off with a small smile of contentment.
Expectations are rarely met. It’s like a cosmic law or something, with all the gods agreeing that mortals should remain forever in a state of optimistic frustration. Like when you queue up in Argos thinking you’ll only be five minutes. So which renegade god was it then, who broke rank and decided that in this instance expectation would not only be met but exceeded?
Because when we interviewed Alan Bowles and Morgan Brind of Little Wolf Entertainment they talked a bloody good talk, didn’t they? It was all ‘bigger’ this, all ‘better’ that. NOTBAd won’t lie to you – we were scared for them. We were practising poor eye contact and how to say “How brave!” in our surprised and delighted fake voice.
But having seen it with our own eyes we can finally confirm that here in Sleeping Beauty is a rather splendid panto thankfully based on more than brassy marketing, chutzpah and hot air.
And still, it floats.
Yes, it is bigger and it is better. The scenery is of impressive scale, ambition and effectiveness; the lighting more complex and atmospheric. Last year a whiff of the homespun rose from some of the costumes like a miasma of Kirstie Allsopp; this year no such adorable. Every penny spent on the costumes (think £400–£800 per dame frock) shows. Every dress sparkles, every cloak swirls, every pair of white tights Prince Vince wears, er… clings, with pleasing and often illuminating precision.
Yes, there were a few tiny technical glitches, but there always are; David Phillips, Production Manager, is confident that the show will evolve and settle as the run progresses. The surprises contained in the UV scene in which Prince Vince (Ben Kerr) hacks his way through the forest of thorns to rescue the narcoleptic Princess Rose (Mairi-Clare Brogan), is a big fat audience pleaser. Very effective, great fun and joyously barking. We would just remind those at the business end to check that their knickers are tucked in at all times for maximum impact.
There are some hum-dinging, foot-stomping songs that has the audience bouncing around in their seats with enthusiasm, and there is more than one song that will make your throat ache with sadness.
It’s always a gamble though, slowing the pace of a pantomime down, moving it into a lower gear. Pantos are all about fun and screaming yourself hoarse, aren’t they? That’s why we go to them; we use panto as a form of release. We don’t want to feel miserable, for goodness sake. Change expectations, fiddle with the format, and suddenly there’s the danger of wrong-footing us, the audience. How are we meant to react?
The relationship between audience and actor is symbiotic; they depend on each other for energy. And it’s how this relationship is balanced that separates a professional from an amateur cast. The latter requires continual positive audience feedback or it becomes demoralised and acutely self-conscious. The actors make a desperate bid to regain control, but the audience has already smelt their fear. It’s a horrible thing to watch. A professional cast, on the other hand, directs the energy flow outwards into the audience. They set the pace. Sure, they thrive on feeling the love but they’re not dependent on it. If an audience codes, they have more than a fighting chance of bringing it back to life.
There are two dramatic changes of pace in Sleeping Beauty; more than that, they are dramatic, emotional changes. NOTBAd applauds the audacity and skill with which they are handled, credit going not only to Morgan for writing them in at all but to Zoë Waterman’s direction. First off, included in the narrative is the death of Princess Rose’s mother.
Yup, you heard. Princess Rose’s mum? Dead as.
Then just as you get over that shock – oh, dear God in heaven – we have Prince Vince cradling Rose as she falls asleep in his arms after pricking her finger. Which would be sad enough even if he didn’t sing a tender, broken version of Bruno Mars’ ‘Amazing’ to her.
Well, at that point we were gone. Tissues. Snot. Noisy swallowing. It was all there having a wake on our face.
And thirdly – though technically a 2(b) – the sleeping Rose is laid out and everyone sings goodbye to her before Fairy Lights (a chirpy Louise Grantham) casts the spell that will put them all to sleep for a hundred years. And the choice of song here, ladies and gentlemen? A version of ‘Run’. We haven’t had our emotions so cruelly manipulated since Sally Field throwing a fit by Shelby’s grave in Steel Magnolias.
Wow, you’re thinking. This doesn’t sound like panto, it sounds like an EastEnders Christmas special.
But, oh! How it works! If there is such a thing as an intelligent panto this is it. The characters are real. Despite being taken from the two-dimensional world of a storybook page they possess a depth that has us rooting for them. Even against a blistering backdrop of smart dialogue spewing double entendres and arch ad-libs like springs from an over-stuffed sofa, we’re never once allowed to forget to care. Even after being lead into anarchy by the frenetic dance numbers and the slop scene and the water pistols, well… we’re reminded that stillness is just as important; the light needs the darkness to shine. And this is PANTO!
The success of this show is down to more than the bling and the dazzle, the visual sleights of hand you can indulge in when there is a bigger budget to play with. It has to be down to the cast. This year the Little Wolf team seem to have struck gold, not only in relation to the skill and vocal talents of their actors but with particular reference to wonderful on-stage chemistry. They look as if they are having the best time, surely no better test of a show. Peter Kenworthy as King Terry has a particularly infectious twinkle to his eye as does Alan himself as Mervin the Magician. Mairi-Clare Brogan and Ben Kerr achieve the impossible by turning in a Prince and Princess that aren’t drippy soppy-socks doomed to start married life as nascent passive-aggressives. Morgan as Nurse Nancy Nightly is one of the best panto dames you’re ever likely to see – blissful timing, ease and an enviable ability to ad-lib.
The local children deliver confident performances that will have you grinning from ear to ear, thanks to Alan’s patient choreography. And talking of local performers – stand up, Ross Graham, unsung hero and all round good egg, delivering a star turn as Boris the Guard Dog and voice and puppeteer of St John, the dragon. Ross has impressed Little Wolf with his unassuming adaptability and professionalism. They are saying that he is quickly becoming an indispensable part of the team. We heart you, Ross!
But of course, in true NOTBAd fashion we have a favourite. Step forward and receive your laurels, Natalie Ball, as evil fairy Carabosse. Everyone covets the role of the baddie, don’t they? And what’s not to love? It’s all cackle and hip swagger and sexy head tossing. Natalie pounces on the part and shakes it until the fur flies. Never has a towering wig been worked with such maniacal relish. Natalie is Carabosse, creeping around the stage like a sinister Mrs Overall on speed, brutally kicking the train of her dress into submission whenever it threatens to trip her up. Our happy delirium would have tipped over into ecstasy if she had only followed a bout of unhinged cackling with “Can I tempt anyone to a custard cream?”
But one thing bemused us. We couldn’t understand it. Here we have this perfect magnificence of evil über-cougar, yet saddled with a pair of shoes that wouldn’t look out of place as part of Scholl’s wide-fit range. It flies straight in the face of The Universal Law of Shoes, Rule #3 – Hot Evil Chicks Need Hot Killer Heels.
And that, pretty much, is the only thing we can criticise.
Sleeping Beauty. Utterly and fabulously silly. Never once stupid.