Sleeping Beauty: Where the Villain Reigns on High

Wednesday 11th December 2019 at York Theatre Royal.

⭐️⭐️⭐️

This year’s offering at York Theatre Royal is Sleeping Beauty and in this production the old classic is given a fair few tweaks and whopping re-writes to keep things skipping along with modern audiences. Director Matt Aston leads a merry band in the telling of the tale and while the beloved Berwick Kaler has departed the spotlight centre stage, he remains writer and co director, putting quirky twists on the well known story to entertain York locals and such.

The fabulous Suzy Cooper takes the lead role here – not Aurora as you might imagine, but simply as Princess Beauty, for you see her mother is a little dim and couldn’t quite master a name beyond the adjective. And that mother is the raspily exuberant Queen Ariadne, played supremely tongue in cheek by Martin Barrass and joined by Jack Lansbury  as the upstanding King (also Tarquin Farquhar in turn). The staff involved with our royalty is limited and in Howie Michaels we find comedy and great vocals combined as the endearingly officious Funky the Flunky – making his professional UK debut no less.

Laughs land primarily at the feet of the thoroughly superb David Leanard as Evil Diva (Maleficent to those looking for familiarity) and the brilliant A.J Powell as her uber-brummy son, Darth Diva. One gurning reaction from Leanard can have me in stitches just as one extended drawl from Powell can. There’s a real flair to the performances of both and this pairing is a real gift to the production, bringing an extra layer of sparkle and shine (and evil cackles and bumbling tantrums) to each scene they hijack and/or trample. I’d happily see their two man show!

Now then. There are show-stealers and then there are show snatchers and in this production we find the latter nestled in the child cast. This performance gave us the Red Team I believe and while the whole gang, made up of Harrison Turner Hazel, Dylan Probert, Charlotte Bowman and Erin Childs, was thoroughly adorable, I believe it was Probert who got the biggest and most sincere belly laughs of the evening. A real cantankerous star that one! And completing the line-up is the ensemble who are a dynamic bunch showing off their talents for all things panto throughout.

It’s the strangest thing though. Despite all the talent of the component parts, this production doesn’t quite deliver all the magic. The action and the energy at times seem to stall and the cast don’t hype the audience as much as they usually do, meaning that jokes and brief audience participation sections don’t land as they should. It’s not the cast lacking in energy as such, it’s more a rather sleepy audience not being cajoled into action a bit more which inevitably has an impact on both sides of the proscenium. The video sequences fall surprisingly flat and a good few gags feel rushed and non-committal, almost like a checklist being ticked rather than a fun show being relished. It doesn’t stop this show from delivering the fun of panto, but it does lead to some disappointing moments where there should be hilarity.

So the cast are certainly talented – what about the production? Well, the writing has heavily revised the story, making Evil Diva the centre of much of the second act. We therefore have a production playing to the strengths of the cast in that Leanard is such a winning force but it also means we are minus a wedding finale and the revisions are without restraint – it will be down to personal preferences as to whether you’ll enjoy the villain centre stage rather than the pretty princess!

Anthony Lamble’s set is suitably reminiscent of ye olde fairytales with a fair few modern visions too. He’s delved into some classic trickster moves with staircases and chairs while also entertaining some more modern flair via screens and projections. Lamble’s costumes are also panto-perfected and adorned with plenty of colour and sparkle – with the villain’s drag being the highlight in place of the extensive dame wardrobe which doesn’t make an appearance here.

And what’s a panto without music? Musical Director Elliot Styche leads fantastic live musicians – Nigel Harvey, John Marley and Danny Hammerton – in a quirky variety of ditties including the exceedingly random fun of the carrot themed sing-along. It has to be said though that the song choices don’t always feel like genius tangents as they usually do and should – sometimes they’re as random and ill fitting as a dame’s corset but the cast entertain nonetheless – particularly thanks to Michaels’ vocals, Leonard’s priceless dramatics and Grace Harrington’s varied and enthusiastic choreography. 

There’s much to like and plenty to entertain here. The cast certainly take on a panto titan with panto optimism and I’m sure as the run goes on, such optimism will reach out and fill the entire theatre with that infectious buzz of excitement we all look forward to at shows of the festive season.

Sleeping Beauty plays York Theatre Royal until January 25th 2020 and you can find tickets here.

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