SLEEPING BEAUTY at the Everyman, Cheltenham

Panto 1It seems like only a moment ago that I put down my pen after reviewing last year’s pantomime at the Everyman, but now here we are again. The opening night of the Christmas show in Regent Street is truly one of the high-spots of the year. It’s all warm and cosy with lots of friends and familiar faces; it brings everyone together. That’s what pantomime does, it breaks down barriers. It breaks down barriers between young and old, between comedy and drama, between variety and straight theatre.

This year’s magnificent offering is Sleeping Beauty and does all those things and a lot more. This is director Phil Clark’s eighth consecutive production at the Everyman and it seems to get better every year. For this show the scenery and costumes are particularly sumptuous and expensive looking and the show has the feel and quality of a big city panto, lacking only a “celebrity” star. But this is deliberate policy. Phil is proud that he eschews the doubtful talents of “someone off the telly” to concentrate on good, old-fashioned professional actors.

The backbone of the shows for the past three years has been the inspired pairing of William Elliot as the dame and Tweedy the Clown as … well, Tweedy the Clown. Their magician sequence in Sleeping Beauty was the funniest thing in it with Tweedy the Conjuror revealing more music-hall skills and Willie revealing what this pantomime dame wears under her big frocks – leotard and tights – as his beautiful assistant. These two work so well together it would be nice to see them as a permanent pairing, perhaps even in the circus. Tweedy’s solo act involved, as it often does, ladders. His hair-raising attempts to reach his trapeze (another first) were gravity and almost death-defying as he contorted between two free-standing ladders, eight feet off the ground.

It was good to see Kelli Maybank back after a year’s absence. She is a remarkable principal boy of the old school. This traditional role is rapidly becoming a dying art as principal boys are now often played by…err…boys. Kelli has the stature, thigh-slapping authority and, in this case, costumes to be right at the core of the production. It was also good to see local girl Wendy Abrahams back after four years, oozing goodness as the high-flying Fairy Snow. Of the newcomers, Eleanor Brown was excellent in the title role and Adam Price suitably regal as her father. The baddy in pantomime is another crucial role and, although she had very large shoes to fill, Joanne Heywood was magnificent and hated by one and all as Fairy Hysteria.

Oddly though, for me, the wow factor in Sleeping Beauty was almost a throwaway. After the wicked fairy has drugged and kidnapped Prince Percival she contrives to marry him. The wedding procession was staged like a New Orleans funeral march, led by a swaying, umbrella-carrying masked figure. This was an inspired moment of pure theatre – although it very much put me in mind of a Fellini film.

Wyn Pearson’s musical direction was, as ever, spot-on providing exactly the right tune and mood at the right time. The company was completed by dancers Frankie Jones and the elegantly tall Jak Allen-Anderson whose high kicks were so high he must have a permanently bruised nose. The ensemble was made up with students of the Janet Marshall Dance Studios.

Altogether, this was one of, if not the best, pantomime produced by the Everyman in recent years and one with which it would be impossible to find fault. I enjoyed every moment.   ★★★★★    Michael Hasted     29/11/14