One grows familiar with the landscape of Christmas shows, and knows in advance what will be happening at various venues. It's a cert, for instance, that the two most enjoyably raucous pantos in London will be at the Hackney Empire and Stratford East. Stratford, though, has been ringing the changes lately.
This year, Sleeping Beauty is indeed the story we all know and love, albeit with a twist or two: Hannah Lawrence's Princess Zarina is sparky and independently minded, and Marcus Powell as Nanny isn't nearly as grotesque as most pantomime dames... indeed, it could be argued that not being obviously a burly bloke in a tasteless frock is an outright failing in a dame. Still, Eve Polycarpou draws all the requisite hisses and boos as the villainous godmother Mee Wan, and Michael Bertenshaw's vizier is so wry that his eyebrows are drawn on at an angle that would turn Roger Moore green with envy. Most of the panto rituals are present and correct (the first "Behind you!" moment occurs a mere five minutes in, the first "Oh, no, it isn't!" routine only five minutes beyond that), although the throwing of sweeties into the audience is dispensed with and the second-act singalong isn't turned into a competition between different parts of the house.
For Hope Massiah and the admirable Delroy Murray have created a panto not so much for kids as for young people. Murray's songs are mostly contemporary R&B in style, although Nanny gets a rock-steady number and one of the princes who fails to rescue Zarina is even a Kraftwerk clone. The pit band is a standard guitar/bass/keyboards/drums combo, whose rhythm section in particular is magnificently tight and driving. There's the occasional nod to cheesiness, but mostly director Dawn Reid and the writers are aiming for the kind of good time where the audience doesn't have to put their normal tastes on hold. This places the show in a slightly specialised position: what it does, it does excellently, but those theatregoers whose hearts are set on tinsel-and-brandy-butter artifice may feel short-changed.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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