Review: CUADC/Footlights Panto: Sleeping Beauty
A slick and charming performance that was wittily adapted to an online format
With optimism usually found in a typical pantomime heroine, I have chosen to view one element of lockdown theatre as an improvement: that I can watch it whenever I like. This is the case for the ADC’s Online season and how I came to spend one delightful Saturday morning watching Sleeping Beauty, the CUADC/Footlights 2021 Pantomime.
Originally planned to be performed live and in-person in December, the panto, like the rest of the theatre industry, has been blighted by the pandemic. The team eventually decided to go ahead with a Zoom format and perform a live-streamed reading with pre-recorded songs in March.
This description does not quite do the performance justice, however, and what ensued was an impressively polished, self-aware, and, of course, highly entertaining show which made the most of the situation.
Although titled Sleeping Beauty, writers Jade Franks and Joe Venable did not let themselves be constrained to one fairy-tale plot, instead taking us on a journey through all of Panto-Land. Not thrilled with her parents’ wedding plans for her, Sleeping Beauty ends up trying to track down a panto horse (who happens to be in the midst of an identity crisis) which has escaped from a prop factory run by the tyrannical capitalists the Brothers Grimm and their even more terrifying boss, Maleficent.
Accompanied by Prince Charming and the cheeky duo of dames Mother Hubbard and Widow Twankey, Sleeping Beauty encounters free-loving pirates, a Wise Old Man, and even Charming’s mates from Sixth Form in this hilarious tale.
The show had a fantastic ensemble who played a range of hilarious supporting characters. Eliz Avni, Clancy Peiris Jr., Lydia Clay-White, and Josh Bailey were very entertaining in their group scenes and really shone as the individual eccentrics encountered by the protagonists on their quest. Sleeping Beauty and Prince Charming were, appropriately, a charming pair played compellingly by Roya Gharbi and James Rodgers.
A surprising show-stealer was the Panto Horse, played with gravitas and charm by Dominic Carrington. Carrington’s gorgeous singing voice made me really feel unexpected sympathy for this misunderstood theatre trope who just dreams of playing Hamlet.
Daniel Bishop as Mother Hubbard and Harriet Wilton as Widow Twankey were also favourites, comprising a hilarious double act who managed to create the feeling of an audience rapport despite the detachment of Zoom. I was particularly grateful for their narration and commentary, which made what might otherwise have been drearily static moments highly engaging.
I enjoyed William Batty and Katie Devey as the evil, avaricious Brothers Grimm and, though I felt Anna Pearson as Maleficent might have benefited more from an audience to rile up as her most malicious moments fell a little flat, the villains’ songs were some of the best in the show. Pearson in particular was a very impressive singer, and her spine-chilling evil laugh must be commended.
The music, composed by Jonathan Whiting, was simply fantastic. To me, the best number was the delightful pirate song, but the Panto Horse’s ballad also deserves a special mention: it wouldn’t have felt out of place in Sondheim.
The band, led by musical directors Georgia Rawlins and Katarina Sullivan, were wonderful, and the sound editors also deserve praise as the pre-recorded musical numbers sounded impressively professional.
I thought the script was very clever, and loved how it seemed to be as much about pantomime as it was one. The joke about fairy-tale names was one of my favourite running gags: the titular heroine’s first name was Sleeping and she was from the Beauty family; likewise, Wise Old-Man’s parents, surnames Old and Man, opted for the double-barrelled approach.
Much of the humour was topical, but I appreciated that the pandemic references were not laboured or overdone. Some jokes also drew attention to the more problematic elements of fairy-tales, such as misogyny and consent, and the plot took a surprising but not unwanted Marxist turn towards the end.
Director Una McKeown took amusing advantage of the online format. The use of Zoom filters/stickers to represent hats and crowns was a stroke of genius, as was the representation of Maleficent in disguise by simply displaying a blank Zoom box reading ‘not Maleficent’.
My main criticism of the show is that whilst the audio for musical numbers played, the actors on screen didn’t seem quite sure what to do with themselves. Either they danced slightly awkwardly and it was difficult to discern who was supposed to be singing, or they attempted to lip sync, which didn’t quite work.
The most successful songs in this respect were the ensemble numbers with the pirates and Prince Charming’s sixth form mates. Here, the ensemble had dance moves that matched a more clearly defined characterisation and weren’t awkward, and they were gleefully attention seeking when their character had a solo, making it abundantly clear what was going on.
This was a show clearly made by people who desperately miss live theatre, and it would be unfair for me to comment much on what was lost in the switch to an online format, most noticeably the lack of laughs and audience interaction usually so vital in pantomime.
There were a few apparent connection problems which marred the video (but thankfully not the audio) of the Panto Horse’s early scenes, but in a way this almost added to the effect of him being lost, confused, and on the run.
I’ve never seen such a meta-Marxist pantomime before, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. Sleeping Beauty is intelligent, genuinely very funny, and a great example of what can be done with online theatre. At only an hour and a half, I would definitely recommend heading over to YouTube and giving this a watch.
Featured image credit: Ailsa Critten
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