“Was that a smirk, Margaret?”
Richmond Theatre’s pantomime Sleeping Beauty was originally scheduled to feature Brian Blessed as a wicked wizard but he was forced to withdraw at late notice due to a health issue and fortunately long-time friend of the theatre Anita Dobson was able to fill in as the show was reworked to turn the wizard back into an evil fairy: the show must go on!
It really is a mixed bag from top to bottom. Dobson is just brilliant as the wicked fairy Carabosse, displaying a terrifying amount of energy and a terrific pair of pins, with a performance which is certifiably bonkers and deliciously good fun as she works the audience expertly. And then there’s Tim Vine as court jester Jangles whose turn could have been lifted almost straight from one of his stand-up shows and herein lies its weakness. Whilst he is undeniably extremely funny (even if much of the audience were a little more equivocal), his constant patter of quick one-liners throughout the show didn’t always feel particularly well-integrated as he is most often playing Tim Vine rather than Jangles: a curious choice in this traditionally mounted family pantomime.
This was simply exacerbated by the relative weakness of the script though with little real laughs coming from anywhere else with solid, rather than distinctive, performances being the order of the day from the cast. Musically, there’s some great use of Queen songs (I wonder how they got the rights for those…?!), Don’t Stop Me Now delivered by Dobson and the company is uniquely brilliant but too often, the production falls back on pop songs with a vaguely appropriate title with no concession to rewording lyrics to make them fit. And none of the original songs that appear on a regular basis really made much impact, no matter how well sung they were by the likes of Jon Robyns and Jodie-Lee Wilde.
Fortunately things picked up considerably after the interval with an inspired take on ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’ which finally connected perfectly with the audience as Vine and two of the male ensemble members ripped through a reworked version of the songs, with props, to hilarious effect. And with the audience visibly engaged, the cast relaxed into a much easier second half. But symptomatic of the whole production, the traditional sing-along and inviting kids from the audience onto the stage came right at the very end as an add-on rather than a part of the show and whilst Vine’s skewering of the typical employment of the fathers of these Richmond children was hysterical, it came dangerously close to leaving the kids bewildered.
Ultimately there are things which will improve as the run progresses as Vine (hopefully) retargets some of his humour, Sophie Isaacs relaxes a little more into becoming a genuinely engaging princess and Fenton Gray could risk a broader, bawdier approach to his Nurse Penny. But I fear that the writing of this particular Sleeping Beauty is just too weak and too reliant on Vine’s own brand of humour for it to be a truly great show despite the sterling efforts of Anita Dobson. Perhaps I am being too harsh and over-analytical, but given the standard of other pantomimes in the London area with their lyrical invention and genuine warm humour, I could not help but be a little disappointed.