The Christmas pantomime is a popular and vibrant tradition, yet many viewing the modern offerings may not realise that they are enjoying an art form that can trace its origins back to Roman times. In earliest recorded form all of the tale was told by the means of wordless dance or mime – indeed the word comes from the Greek word for all ‘panto’ and ‘mimos’ a dancer who acted all the roles in a story.
With the accomplished Richard Gauntlett in charge as director, writer and dame you can be confident of a pantomime that is rooted deep in theatrical traditions, while bursting with contemporary
Richard Gauntlett as Mrs Midges
references, jokes and music. This year Richard has excelled even his normal high standard with a pantomime that is well balanced, beautifully performed and uses the best of stage technology to create a really memorable show.
The real magic of this show lies with the skilful casting, creating a happy team that gel well together on stage. The lead role of Patience, our Sleeping Beauty, is played by Elizabeth Carter, who many remember for her captivating performance in Dreamboats and Petticoats earlier this year. In this performance her role constrains her from showing the full range of her talents, but she is one to watch in the future. Her romantic pair in the principal boy role is the capable Glenn Adamson, who sings elegantly even when on stage with a distracting and rather wet caper going on behind him. He is the Honourable Timothy Norbridge, son of Lord Teddy Norbridge (Stephen Godward) an aristocratic old chap with a deft take on the Charleston.
A big part of the modern panto tradition is the appearance of celebrity guest stars. While these stars often have fleeting appearances to allow their sprinkling of a little stardust in this show our two guests take major roles. This year’s villain as Dowager Aunt Vipera is the very capable Gillian Wright, known to millions as Jean Slater on Eastenders. Here she is a cackling enchantress who wants to steal away the youth and beauty of Patience, forever popping up on stage amidst wreaths of green smoke. I suspect that Gillian is just too nice ever to be a really convincing villain but after seeing this show my advice would be not to cross her, just in case. And the Slaters are a big family!
Audience favourite this year is the charming and urbane Derek Griffiths. Generations will cherish fond memories of his work on Play School and Play Away, from the days when children’s television was well made and worth watching. Derek is Chortwood, the Norbridge’s butler and the narrator of this tale. His authority is natural but his engagement with the audience is subtle and very quick. Look out for a little bit of funky dancing too!
The Gauntlett dame Mrs Midges comes of course with a comedic partner in the form of Ben Langley as his hapless son Muddles. They are skilled in slapstick and spontaneous repartee and inevitably end up getting quite messy in this show while trying to repair an ancient set of fountains on stage. No panto would be complete without a non-human role. Those with fond memories of Greta the goat from Snow White a couple of years back will be pleased to see Greta return, albeit this year as an Ipswich-built lawnmower with a mind of its own.
Monks on ropes
Gauntlet and Langley are nothing if not adventurous and a highlight for me of this show is the recreation of the famous bell ringers routine, originally crafted by Robert Dhéry in 1954 for a Crazy Gang Revue. Four monks take their bell ringing duties to new heights when the band breaks into a rather jazzy number in this faithful remake of a complex and athletic bit of tightly choreographed stage action. This routine was revived in 1984 for a Royal Variety which can be found on YouTube. If you see the backstage chaps who were on the other end of these ropes, buy them a pint – they’ve earned it!
Another audience pleaser is a skeleton dance routine which features the ensemble players as well as the ever popular panto babes – three sets of young stars from the Central School of Dancing and Performing Arts. When not tapping out a tune in the dark these capable little performers are the ‘bugs’ who do Vipera’s dirty work for her, clattering around the stage to keep an eye on patience and her friends. These tiny talents play a big part in this show, and they are faultless in their choreography and stagecraft.
With such a complex and ambitious show there is a lot of room for disasters, but tonight all the mishaps were on the script and cleverly executed. While there is plenty of mild innuendo this is a show for the whole family to enjoy together, a show to talk about and remember for a long time to come. When you do go, remember that as part of the audience you are a big part of what makes this show work, so shout and sing along and you will be sure of a great evening – oh yes you will!
©Julian Swainson 2017
Sleeping Beauty, Wednesday 13 December 2017-Sunday 14 January 2018. Tickets £7-£24.50. Under-threes free. Discounts for Friends, Over-60s, Under-18s and Groups. Signed performance on Saturday 13 Jan at 2.30pm. Audio-described performances on Wednesday 3 Jan and Saturday 6 Jan at 2.30pm. Captioned performance on Sunday 7 Jan at 1pm. Relaxed performance on Friday 5 Jan at 5.30pm which is bookable in person or by phone on 01603 630000.
To book, log onto www.theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk or call the box office on 01603 630000.