Winter is here and that can mean only one thing – it’s panto season (oh yes it is!). The Belgrade is running their annual pantomime (this year, a retelling of the story of Sleeping Beauty) and I was lucky enough to go along to the opening show for a night of family fun.
It’s the day of Princess Belle’s birth, and good fairy Azurial (Anna Mitcham) heads to the castle to bless the baby. Her sister, Carabosse (Laura Judge), is furious at not receiving an invitation, and arrives to place a curse of death on the child – fortunately, the young fairies subvert the curse, meaning Belle will fall asleep for 100 years when she pricks her finger on a spinning wheel on her 18th birthday. Nanny Fanny McWheeze (Iain Lauchlan) and Muddles the Jester (Craig Hollingsworth) look after the child and Belle grows to fall in love with Prince Valiant (Joanna Thorne) – however, when the curse strikes, the cast must travel into the future and defeat Carabosse.
I love pantomimes – they’re such unabashed fun, and Sleeping Beauty is no different
I love pantomimes – they’re such unabashed fun, and Sleeping Beauty is no different. The sense of infectious fun is best captured by Hollingsworth as Muddles – he has such a great energy, throwing himself into all manner of dances and physical beatings, and it went down an absolute storm with the kids there. He also had wonderful chemistry with our panto dame, Nanny McWheeze, who was played by the show’s writer and director – the dame and the comic are really the two key elements when casting a pantomime, and they’re both perfect. The two have a great moment when making a cake, leading to a bit of audience participation (although the kid, who’d been set up by his friends, looked terrified).
Really, though, the pantomime is a group experience, and the sheer enthusiasm onstage is palpable. Thorne makes a great heroic lead, and Mitcham is joyful as the good fairy. Judge chews the scenery as panto villains do, and does a great job doing it. Even the child actors were great, and I normally hate it when children try to act (such is the magic of the pantomime). I often think it must be harder to act in a panto – you have to remember everything that is meant to happen, yet react to the audience too. Fortunately, when you’ve a cast this fantastic, you needn’t worry.
The sheer enthusiasm onstage is palpable
So, what else can you expect to see? Your typical panto fun, of course – magical sets (I’m saying nothing about comparing the dungeon, a place that is ‘dark and full of despair’, to my home town of Nuneaton) and special effects aplenty (kudos to the animatronic dragon – it doesn’t outstay its welcome, and it is really incredible to see). Expect your panto staples – cries of ‘behind you’ and the like. There’s a hilarious interaction with a Scottish version of Alexa. You’ve some fantastic song and dance numbers – ‘If I Weren’t In Panto’ is a highlight, a four-parter between Muddles, Nanny McWheeze, Azurial and Valliant that is packed full of slapstick humour, and the four actors are phenomenal to keep it all going.
With such a fun night, it seems almost rude to find problems (although, if I’m honest, there really weren’t that many). Both my partner and I thought that Melissa Brown-Taylor (Belle) seemed almost as if she didn’t want to be there – arguably the princess is the role with the least fun to it, but it was a bit of a shame to see a role made so unfun in a pantomime. I also found the choice of ‘Rewrite the Stars’ from The Greatest Showman an odd one for the love number between Belle and Valiant – there’s nothing inherently wrong with it as a song, but everything else was new to me (Lauchlan crafted a number of original songs for the show) and it took me out of the moment. While not a fault, the choice of some of the comic references – Tommy Cooper and Larry Grayson – struck me as interesting in a show aimed mainly at children.
These little issues are, in the grand scheme of things, nowhere near enough to impact on your enjoyment of the show. It’s a silly show, but it’s incredibly well done, and it really is two-and-a-half hours of unadulterated delight – I would highly recommend a trip to see Sleeping Beauty this Christmas.
Sleeping Beauty is at the Belgrade Theatre from November 21 to January 5. Tickets are available here.