Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough
Opened 16 December, 2008

Alan Ayckbourn’s final play as artistic director of the Stephen Joseph Theatre (Lord knows how many he has written: the best the programme can manage is “over 70”) takes a traditional fairy tale as its jumping-off point and is presented during the season for family shows, but do not be misled. In the opening minutes, when the handsome prince finds his way to the bed of the sleeping Princess Aurora, it is not just his heart that suddenly stirs but also regions further south; later, after the wicked witch has had a comprehensive makeover by a team of beauticians, she greets her new reflection in the mirror with, “Well, fuck me!” This is not a show at which your little poppets’ innocence will be preserved.

And then again… Ayckbourn knows that he is writing not just for adults, but also for the children in us. He enjoys subverting the familiar story by having the witch also fall for the prince and execute various stratagems to lure him from his beloved princess. He even parodies himself by having the now-married Mr & Mrs Prince (“I took his name,” simpers Aurora) move into the suburbs which have been his dramatic stamping ground for decades; they take out a mortgage on number 29 Brownbrick Road and secure jobs as a supermarket shelf-stacker and a topless waitress. But, from the moment the witch is stripped of her powers and told to ensnare the prince using mortals’ wiles, we are in little doubt that the story will end with her redemption and the Princes’ coming through.

The cast consists of four principals – prince, princess, witch and her minion the Pigcutter – and half a dozen narrators who also play all other roles and voice much of the score. Denis King’s jaunty music is played by a single keyboard, fleshed out by the narrators’ vocal harmonies. Anna Francolini puts in a remarkable turn as the witch Carabosse (later made-over into simple “Cara”), and Duncan Patrick is a prince whose good heart always gets his weak head out of trouble. Among the narrators, Matthew White excels in a scene as the chief sorceress. Not a classic Ayckbourn on which to end an era, but a warming distillation of several of the strains running through his work.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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