Back in the day, celebrated theatre critic Hannen Swaffer remarked: “I have seen many fine performances in over 30 years of theatre-going and my favourite performances are as follows, Wolfit’s Lear, Olivier’s Othello and Frank Randle’s Buttons.”
Now, ol’ Swaff may have had a bit of a twinkle in his eye as he wrote this, but that’s not to say he didn’t mean it. Northern comedy godhead Randle was indeed known to deliver a barnstorming Buttons. And the quote goes some way to making a good point. Just because a show isn’t ‘serious’ doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take it seriously.
Pantomime suffers by this a lot. Too often it’s not taken seriously, either by critics or even by proponents of the form. Too often there’s an almighty whiff of, “Oh, this”ll do, it’s only for kids” about it. There’s not exactly a national shortage of pantomimes, but how many of them are truly great?
At the gorgeously apportioned Harrogate Theatre, director/co-writer Phil Lowe and his team are doing a fine job of taking pantomimes seriously. The results are like you always hoped they’d be, rather than the more common variety of ‘Here’s someone off Hollyoaks and a runner-up from Britain’s Got Talent and a family ticket’ll be a small fortune, please’.
It’s no slight at all to say that no-one from the cast of Sleeping Beauty would be billed as ‘From TV’s [insert show here]’. They’re all in-demand stage performers, many of them regulars in the Harrogate pantomime company. It’s Lowe’s seventh year at the helm. Chris Clarkson is back as the dame for a second year, having made a great impression in last year’s show Jack and the Beanstalk. Tim Stedman, here playing Silly Sidney, has been the daffy secret weapon in Harrogate shows for14 years now. If you’ve got post-Christmas blues, his antics are the cure.
Now, what makes this inherently better than a show with a cast of more recognizable performers who’ve made their name in other fields? Well, consider this: if you wanted your house re-wiring, would you rather engage an experienced electrician, or an acclaimed landscape gardener who fancied a challenge and the extra cash?
True to form, this year’s Sleeping Beauty is a traditional show. Not ‘traditional’ in the sense of ‘Victorian’ or anything; traditional in that it’s faithful to the established elements and form of pantomime. So slapstick scenes, audience participation and an en masse sing-a-long can sit alongside Katy Perry tunes, Mary Berry references and a cameo from a Despicable Me minion, because topicality is something that pantomime has always done well. Similarly, there’s a lorry-load of jokes local to Harrogate – so, sly digs at Knaresborough Castle, Mother Shipton’s Cave and the lengthy queues outside Betty’s Tearooms.
The original fairy-tale plot is intact, even if the show plays fast and loose with it, even taking in a messy, unsuccessful time-travelling detour. Philip Stewart, as the good wizard Roy, is decked out in a straggly beard, glitter make-up, and star-shaped glasses, and if this tip of the hat to Roy Wood‘s Wizzard is lost on the younger members of the audience, it’ll certainly hit the spot for their parents. In fact, Seventies references become a bit of a thread throughout the show, with nods to Barry White, Bruce Forsyth, Morecambe and Wise and Doctor Who‘s giant spiders of Metebelis. Director Lowe, an avowed heavy metal fan, may well be responsible for choosing the tinkling motif which heralds the Princess’ first entrance and sounds suspiciously like it’s from Stairway to Heaven.
On balance, it’s just possible that last year’s Jack and the Beanstalk had the edge over this year’s show. That felt sprightly, rocket-fuelled and full of momentum. This has some clunky moments and takes a little while to get into gear. Clarkson as Dame Nanny Annie could maybe do with a bit more to do, because he’s far too good to stand idle – though he does sport a parade of extraordinary costumes-cum-disguises. Sometimes the dialogue’s a bit too rapid-fire and becomes inaudible. While never remotely offensive, the odd joke is very slightly more nudge-nudge, wink-wink than it needs to be, and generally there’s a quotient of gags which are more groan-worthy than chucklesome.
But this is splitting hairs, really. It’s a show which sets out to entertain every audience member, whatever their age, and it achieves this in spades. It’s daft, manic, free-wheeling and hugely inventive. If you have the chance, go and see it. You’ll be in very safe hands. Harrogate’s pantomimes are just about the most fun it’s possible to have in a theatre. When it’s firing on all cylinders, it’s life-affirming stuff. Seriously.
Review by Andy Murray
Images by Karl Andre
What: Sleeping Beauty
Where: Harrogate Theatre
When: until January 12, 2014