Sleeping Beauty at the New Theatre Royal, Portsmouth
From the moment my daughter and I came in from the icy cold of Guildhall Walk, to the warm and welcoming Victorian Phipps/Matcham New Theatre Royal last night, it was clear that Jordan Productions’ “Sleeping Beauty” was going to be a seriously festive dollop of fun; every single person we encountered, from the twinkly and sparkling ladies at the Box Office kiosk who gave us our tickets, to the members of the FOH team who helped us find our seats: the sense of Christmassy, Opening Night excitement was rife, infectious and lovely to see.
Once my five-year-old had stocked up on the essentials – I mean, how can you sit down to enjoy a pantomime without milk chocolate buttons?! - and the pink and glittery safety curtain had lifted to reveal Andy Newell’s stunning Palace Garden, we were off; whisked along at a jaunty pace, on a fairy-tale adventure told and led by a talented cast.
Ella Rose Thomas as Fairy Fortywinks set the tone of the piece, immediately introducing herself as a likeable, endearing and - from a tired Mummy’s perspective, incredibly relatable (!) - sleepy fairy friend to the audience; any first-time panto-going nerves my little one may have had before curtain up, melted away as Thomas blew her magic trumpet, confidently belted her way through a New Theatre Royal twist on Hairspray’s ‘Good Morning, Baltimore’ and, alongside a skilled set of Junior Ensemble performers from Classique School of Dance, established the premise of the plot.
In came Edward Baker-Duly as King Clarence and it was clear that the audience were in very capable hands with another talented panto performer. From his commanding first entrance, Baker-Duly's King Clarence – or should that be King Clarence House, in recognition of his absolutely spot-on King Charles-isms – had the audience eating out the palm of his hand. Baker-Duly really leads the cast and shows off a fantastic singing voice too.
It’s worth mentioning that, whilst the script of the production is relatively beefy, the show really does whizz along apace and part of that is because of the evident enjoyment of the cast zipping through the story with excitement and enthusiasm, but is also due to the brilliantly scored music that knits together the scenes and set changes. Somehow, MD James Cleeves’ band is a character in itself, and multiple times in the show the music, and not the dialog, is the wry voice commenting on something or other in a remarkably subtle way that I hadn’t expected from panto!
With classy musical choices in mind, I particularly loved the moment in which the wonderfully wicked Carabosse, played by Carli Norris, seamlessly mashed up Sondheim’s “Last Midnight” with Mark Ronson’s “Uptown Funk” - not sounds I’d ever have thought to hear together, but it worked brilliantly!
A word on Norris as Carabosse. Just one. ‘Perfect’. Carli Norris is absolutely perfect as the villain of the piece – she manages to be both full-on panto, mwa-ha-ha evil AND likeable AND funny. My relatively easily-spooked daughter was gleefully booing and cheering at the evil enchantress but at no point was Carli so utterly terrifying that small children were leaving in tears. Perfectly pitched in both characterisation and velvety vocal tones, and an expert in handling those Opening Night mishaps; three cheers for good old Peggy Babcock! #IYKYK
In a similar vein of recognising personal favourites, I have to mention Michael Neilson and Kevin James as Dame Nellie Night Nurse and Chester the Jester respectively. Together these two formed the brilliant traditional panto duo of mother and son; dame and clown and: boy, oh boy, did they do it well (Oh, no, they didn’t! OH YES, they did!).
Moment after moment of fast-paced quips, slapstick comedy and the very clear enjoyment the pair shared in performing together, and it’s fair to say that between Neilson and James, they provided some of the highlights of the show: the messy baking scene in the Palace Kitchen, the birthday party DJ set, and the Dame’s striptease all shone out as brilliantly funny and well-executed set pieces.
James carried the audience along, enrolling them in his present-protecting gang, in a very wholesome and warm way and Neilson’s tongue-in-cheek, by-the-seat-of-his-pants (literally in some scenes!) en-travesti performance was the perfect foil to PG-13 court jester.
And of course, there was Sleeping Beauty herself, Aurora, and her charming – or in this case, Valiant, – prince. Amy Everett and Ashley Emerson worked well as the loved-up couple and their duet, and reprise of, “A Million Dreams” was really effective; both are very capable performers and it was refreshing to hear ingenues that were not constantly twanging out annoyingly nasal vocals, Everett and Emerson’s pure-sounding singing married perfectly with the naïve personalities of their young characters.
Similarly refreshing was the humour both brought to their roles; the romantic leads of pantomime can often veer wearisomely into the territory of being rather twee, but, anyone who saw Aurora and Prince Valiant simultaneously crooning and surfing the dream sequence bouncy castle, could see that this wasn’t the case in this production: the pair add extra likeability to their characters by making them aware of the total bizarreness of the situations they find themselves in.
Flik Swan’s production of ‘Sleeping Beauty’ is a-laugh-a-minute show that packs a pretty Christmassy punch: from Freya Mills’ and Collette Tulley’s fabulously glitzy and extravagant costumes, to the talented Ensemble (Ben Walsh, Megan Peyman, Thomas Curzon and Zoe Hartley) - who are all certainly faces to watch out for in the future – Carabosse’s spectacular transformation (I won’t spoil it for you, but suffice to say, the SFX are fab!), King Clarence's all-too-familiar time machine and Charley Maclaren’s creative contemporary choreography, the show is non-stop fun, frolics and festivity.
My five-year-old daughter, who came straight from school (and who was so excited to have a girls’ night out at the theatre that she was up at 4am...) spent the evening dancing in the aisles, grinning from ear-to-ear.
We were sat next to a large group of Ukrainian people, for whom the show was a very first venture into the, peculiarly British, tradition of pantomime. The lady next to me said that she’d never seen anything like it and I think there can perhaps be no better testament to the success of the show than to say that, despite potential language barriers, an unfamiliarity with the genre and the whole ‘newness’ of the situation for so many of the audience members from that particular group, I looked down the row to see seat after seat of laughing faces: relaxed, very happy and relishing the escapism of this production - and that was the same of every row of seats; it was a house very much enjoying this joyous Christmas production.
‘Sleeping Beauty’ is the perfect, family-friendly traditional pantomime for anyone in the Hampshire area and I really can’t recommend it enough!
SLEEPING BEAUTY RUNS UNTIL 31ST DECEMBER, TICKETS AND MORE INFORMATION AVAILABLE HERE: Sleeping Beauty at the New Theatre Royal, Portsmouth