Regular Everyman panto-goers could be forgiven for thinking they’re stranded in an endlessly recurring dream.
They’re in a dark, brick-lined auditorium. In front of them lies a landscape of painted, nursery psychedelia. There’s a tremendous racket generated by a candy-coloured rock band with an effortless grasp of the entire history of recorded music. And deep inside a cloud of pixie dust and icing sugar, there’s a fairy tale being pummelled to death.
This year it’s Sleeping Beauty, allegedly, but as with Everyman rock ‘n’ roll pantomimes down the ages, the familiar fable almost vanishes beneath a 25-tog duvet of hilariously convoluted backstory and a pick ‘n’ mix of powerful pop hits. This year, the regular writing team of Sarah A Nixon and Mark Chatterton (with the latter also directing) manages to squeeze in additional plot points from The Wizard of Oz and The Time Machine (including an appearance from H.G. Well Well Wells himself), and characters as unfamiliar to the Brothers Grimm as Dora the Explorer and Ant-Man.
The Everyman’s dedication to delivering this annual theatrical sugar-rush is both a blessing and a curse. The downside is that we never see what its intimate arena could do with a more nuanced Christmas production, but the big benefit is that this panto team now feels like a family to which we all belong. Welcoming them back is like walking into your favourite Christmas party, one that never fails to get even the grumpiest revellers – i.e. me – up and dancing by the end of the night.
Dinah England’s psychoactive set and costumes are the first confirmation that we’re back on familiar territory. Then there’s Greg Last’s turbocharged musical direction and a score that twists and shouts through hits by everyone from Hot Chocolate and Billy Ocean to Ryuichi Sakamoto and Charlie Puth (yeah, I admit, I had to Google it when I got home). And just for old gits like me, there’s even an unlikely run-out for the Bullseye theme. Yes, as in the darts-based quiz show.
That’s why I adore the Everyman panto.
The big switcharound this year is the absence of the show’s regular dame, Francis Tucker. In the tradition of disgraced politicians everywhere, he’s taking a break to spend more time with his family this Christmas, and so filling his sometimes very big shoes comes Matthew Quinn. In place of Tucker’s pint-swilling pub drummer of a dame, Quinn brings a spirit that’s a bit more vintage light entertainment – think golden-era Bernie Clifton in a wig. He’s clearly loving appearing alongside the production’s ever-present comedy cornerstone, Adam Keast, and their double entendres never stop, er, coming.
As always, there’s a spiralling insanity to the show’s inventiveness, with its time-travelling sub-plot, inexplicable twists (if anyone can explain the rose-tinted Diddy Men spoof in the second half… please, don’t bother, it’s funny enough as it is), and reinvention of Sleeping Beauty herself as an impish Avengers-style martial artist.
Dispatched to a mountain hideaway as a baby, she’s schooled in a series of ‘sacred disciplines’ to help her avoid the evil fairy’s curse – you know, the pricking her finger on a spinning wheel thing. Played by Stephanie Hockley as a kind of zen Emma Peel, her arcane skills include the ancient art of Insect Bending – which, would you believe, turns out to be essential if we’re to have a happy ending.
To quote the late John Peel when talking about his favourite band, The Fall, the Everyman panto continues to be “always different, always the same” and that’s just how Liverpool likes it. Speaking of which, if they manage to slot in a track by that particular band this time next year, it’ll be a guaranteed five stars from me.
Photos by Robert Day
Sleeping Beauty is at the Everyman Theatre, Liverpool, until January 18, 2020. For more information, click here.