Panto review: Sleeping Beauty at Rhodes Arts Complex, Bishop's Stortford
In an era when fake news and disinformation seem to be spiralling depressingly out of control, it’s weirdly ironic that we can find wondrous relief in an evening at the theatre being entertained by a long-established, socially acceptable form of ‘fake news’.
Not only that, but it’s fake news that parents are encouraged to take their children to watch!
The fake news – sorry, fairy tale – in question is Sleeping Beauty, the first production of the new panto era at Rhodes Arts Complex in Bishop’s Stortford.
After nine years in the hands of the venue’s former artistic director Phil Dale’s Phoenix Theatre Arts, Stortford’s annual panto fix is now being administered jointly by Rhodes and Wisecracker Entertainment, a company with a track record of laying on top family entertainment in theatres and bespoke venues – and it shows.
If this year’s co-production of Sleeping Beauty is a measure of what the future has in store for Rhodes panto audiences, they can rest easy.
The creative team, cast and crew have crafted a gem of a family show. It has most, if not all, of the elements of a traditional panto and yet seems to transcend the genre.
It is written and directed by Ian McFarlane, who has worked on some of the biggest pantos in London and around the UK, directing celebs.
His script is witty, uber-contemporary – check out the twist in the tail of the tale – and speaks to all ages throughout. It bears the hallmarks of an accomplished storyteller.
Not only that, but there are some lovely adaptations to the lyrics of some of the songs in what is an infectiously upbeat soundtrack which features numbers from film and theatre musicals including The Greatest Showman, The Wizard of Oz and Matilda as well as chart hits by Elton John, Queen and Madness.
The award for most energetic number goes to the Twelve Days of Christmas routine while the sassiest is the evil Fairy Midnight and dancers performing Let’s Be Bad from TV’s Smash.
The music is performed by a two-man band comprising musical director Lawrie Denman on keyboards and a drummer, who between them produce a big sound, especially on The Greatest Showman number From Now On.
The excellent dance routines are choreographed by Richard Jones, direct from opening Mary Poppins in the West End for Cameron Mackintosh and taking time away from the international tour of Miss Saigon.
Of course, any production concepts count for nowt if they can’t be executed to the required standard – and what a great cast Rhodes artistic programmer Sue Scott-Davison has assembled.
The eight young – young-ish if you include the dame (sorry, Nanny Nora) – professional actors reveal themselves to be super-talented all-round performers, whether acting, singing or dancing. The bar is set high right at the start and never drops.
Whether as individuals, duos, a trio or any other permutation, they are wholly impressive, aided by a rapport fashioned in a relatively short rehearsal period, which is particularly evident between the excellent leads, the feisty “un-princessy” heroine Princess Bea (Hannah Louise Howell) and Prince Felix (Aaron Kavanagh).
The timing between Nanny Nora (James Lavender) and Jasper the Jester (played endearingly as a Brummie by Liam Huband) is spot on.
While this pair are blessed with most of the script’s one-liners (watch out for an outrageous line from Nanny Nora, mums and dads) and therefore rack up a lot of the obvious laughs from the audience, Joel Macey as the gloriously vain Prince Adolpho (Felix’s ‘twin’ brother) and Jodie Micciche as the evil Fairy Midnight (she also plays Bea’s fairy godmother, Fairy Light) notch up their laughs through superb characterisation. I loved their performances.
The professional cast is completed by Bobby Harding and Alice Rose Fletcher, whose understudy duties require them to know all the other male and female parts between them.
The community panto ethos of the Phoenix era is not lost as the production provides a platform for three teams of seven local young dancers and singers of varying ages – a kind of Stortford version of the Von Trapp children.
The only bum note to the show that I saw on Saturday (Dec 7) was that it ended and I had to return to the real world (#sadfaceemoji).
I cannot recommend Sleeping Beauty highly enough. It’s slick, pacy, bright, colourful, funny and all-round fabulous. And, unlike Prince Andrew, it was refreshing to spend an evening in the company of wholesome royals.
Star rating (out of 5): *****
* Sleeping Beauty continues at Rhodes until Sunday January 5. Tickets are priced at £20-£27 for standard, £18-£24 for concessions (over-60s and under-16s) and £70-£89 for a family. You can book online at rhodesartscomplex.co.uk, by calling the box office on 01279 710200 or in person at Rhodes in South Road.