Barbican Theatre, London EC2
Opened 17 December, 2004

The Holy Grail of Christmas shows is a traditional story, retold with edge and originality in a style that keeps adults and children alike enthralled.  The Young Vic hit paydirt two years ago with this dark, vivid reinvention of Sleeping Beauty; while the Vic is being rebuilt, the show plays the Barbican.  It echoes Stephen Sondheimís Into The Woods and Angela Carterís dark stories, but is also faithful to its origins.

Everybody knows the story of Sleeping Beauty. Er, no, actually everybody knows only the first half or so of the authoritative versions of the tale.  Did you know that, after Beauty awakes, an ogress tries to eat her and her children? Or that the ogress is related to the Prince whose kiss woke Beauty?  See? The panto version of the tale is sanitised, just like Cinderella without the sisters cutting off their toes.

In Rufus Norrisís version, good and bad are much more untidily mixed up. For a start, the good fairy who helps the couple along their way and the bad fairy whose curse sends Beauty to sleep to begin with are one and the same.  Wild-haired Fairy Goody, part-punk, part-Puck, is trying to get her magic back by atoning for her wicked curse.  Like anybody in this world, she faces conflicts and canít always solve them.

Helena Lymbery ought to be a much better known actress than she is. Iíve been a fan for over a dozen years now.  The trouble is that she so completely gives herself to each part she plays that sheís often unrecognisable from one outing to the next. I was surprised that I managed to identify her here.  As Goody, she manages to be both otherworldly and all too human as she tries to work things out for the best.

Daniel Cerqueira is both funny and unsettling as Beautyís ogress mother-in-law, trying to bring her son up as human but finally, rapturously giving in to her appetite for baby-flesh.  He nods to the tradition of pantomime dames but also plays it much darker, just as the entire production does.  Duncan Wisbey also steals a clutch of scenes as a slave of the Ogress whose job is to be a living dinner table.

Katrina Lindsayís design of revolving drums is a fascinating theatre machine.  It might sound as if the show is both too scary and too complex for children. (Itís recommended not for the under-sixes.) On the contrary, when I saw it the kids were as enraptured as I was, and not just by the fart gags (whenever Goody casts a spell, she lets one go).  Conventional it certainly ainít, but it has the dark fire of all true magic.

Written for Teletext.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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