Made in Colchester at the Mercury Theatre
Among the C-listers and the pop charts, the cruise-ship choreography and the desperate decibels, it's a real pleasure to sit back and enjoy this charmingly original re-working of the Sleeping Beauty story, originally written by Jonathan Petherbridge for London Bubble Theatre, and directed for the Mercury by Tony Casement.
At its best when it holds its alternative nerve, as in the delightful opening, where The Old Woman [Kate Copeland] emerges from her giant portmanteau to look into the future for the childless King and Queen. Elsewhere, it feels a little apologetic, with its talk of critical exposition [“the audience needs to know what's going on”] and the Dame teaching the Fairy how to interact with the audience.
Much of the writing is witty and unusually subtle – way above the heads of the kids - the songs, many of them written for the show by Richard Reeday, the MD, are redolent of the fifties and sixties where the first half of the show is set. “If Life Were Like Ballroom” especially enjoyable. One hundred years later we're into the future [as seen from the 1950s] with robots, saucers and genetically modified Police Dogs.
No shortage of clever twists, either – the fatal needle, for example, is the stylus of a lovely period Dansette.
And it's good to see a new take on some of these familiar fairytale characters. Emma Salvo is a well-meaning trainee fairy [the staff room an excellent piece of set design] longing to get her wings, and David Ahmad is excellent as Davis, the faithful royal retainer. Superb work from Jonny Fines and his quiff as a young Prince Justin [and his distant teenage descendant Ronnie], wooing Stephanie Hockley's Princess Talia with his dance moves.
Slightly out of his/her element as a traditional dame, Neil Bromley's Nanny, with her B-Tech in Projectile Vomiting and her venerable gags. Other familiar features which don't quite fit are the baking scene, which quickly becomes gratuitous water pistol fun, and the interminable Birthday Bingo. At least we are spared inviting children up on stage to talk about what Santa will be bringing …
It's a long way from shouting “It's Behind You!” to remembering a dictionary definition of A Republic, and the audience participation is sometimes tentative. Many of the younger punters prefer the cuddly rabbits, who pop up to steal sandwiches and the all-important calculator.
Like the Noh and the Nativity play, pantomime is a sacred ritual – you mess with it at your peril. Mums and Dads, for their one taste of live theatre in the year, like to bring their kids to discover what they themselves loved as children. But if a new broom is needed, much rather this quirky, intelligently loveable hybrid than a vehicle for an X-factor songster or a second-rate soap star.
production photograph: Robert Daythis piece first appeared on The Public Reviews