REVIEW: Sleeping Beauty at Grove Theatre, Dunstable

Cast of Sleeping Beauty at Grove Theatre, Dunstable: from left, back, Rebecca Keatley (Fairy Moonbeam), Will Kenning (Nurse Nellie), Ian Jones (Jangles) and Sally Lindsay (Carabosse); front from left, Jemma Carlisle (Sleeping Beauty) and John Partridge (Prince Charming). Picture by Paul Clapp, Limelight Studios

John Partridge is a perfect fit for pantomime.

He looks good, he has a fabulous strong singing voice and – most importantly – he understands panto. The prince, as the handsome hero of the piece, could be a completely straight faced role, but John injects real humour and gives 100% in his joyful interactions with the audience as well as jesting with the wonderful live orchestra for interfering in one of his solos. His joy is genuine and very infectious.
Last year’s panto at Grove Theatre, Dunstable, was my favourite of the entire season, so I had high hopes for this year’s offering of Sleeping Beauty.
And I was not disappointed.
If you want a laughter filled evening with your children, secure in the knowledge there will be no embarrassment, then this production from Evolution Pantomimes is a guaranteed great night out.
In recent years some pantos have taken the traditional double entendre too far, but Grove Theatre has always struck the right balance whenever I have been there, and that remains the case this year.
The jokes in the first half are fast and furious and the audience was in fits of laughter, this is a really good panto script – well done to producer and script writer Paul Hendy.
The cast gel beautifully, with each other and the audience, and the costumes are sparkling and fearsome be they glittering wedding outfits or scary ghosts and ghouls.
The lighting is stunning from the get go, with a lovely snow/bubble effect at the start followed by atmospheric green darkening the stage at the entrance of wicked Carabosse (a great performance from Sally Lindsay) – well done to lighting designer Mark Dymock. Such effects really do help to set the scene.
CBeebies star Rebecca Keatley had the audience on side right from the start with her role as Fairy Moonbeam, she spoke directly to the children who clearly adored her, explaining that we were in the land of Hamalot where the princess, Sleeping Beauty (Jemma Carlisle) had just been born and that it was Fairy Moonbeam’s job to ensure no harm came to her.
For the first few scenes I did wonder if the audience should join the cast on stage as we were asked to remember so many lines and responses to various different characters I thought it was a good job I had my notebook handy to jot everything down, but the lines soon came naturally and ensured the audience was engaged and involved in the performance throughout.
There were two stand out scenes. The first, between Nurse Nellie (played to utter perfection by Will Kenning, also the director of the show) and lovable Jangles (Ian Jones). This involved the pair using magazine titles to deliver a well written and humorous sketch. I loved it from the start, but it developed deeper personal resonance when they mentioned True Story, a now defunct magazine from the Argus Consumer Press stable, which just happens to have been a stablemate to True Romances, the magazine I was editor of early in my career.
The other stand out scene was in the schoolroom where all the cast were dressed as pupils and Sally Lindsay delivered a magnificent performance as a stroppy teenager. This was also where King Cuthbert (Ieuan Rhys) came into his own, showing off his talent for the Welsh language (the clue is in his name).
The first half culminated with a glorious huge scary dragon breathing smoke onto the audience – excellent work from Mike Coltman of Costume Construction and AC Lasers.
By contrast with the first half, the second was slower to start and much darker because, by now, Sleeping Beauty was slumbering in a castle covered with thorns, and her loved ones were trying to affect her escape, thwarted by wicked Carabosse.
The slapstick scene in the bathroom with Nurse Nellie and Jangles getting soaked didn’t really work for me, it seemed a bit flat, but eventually, as in all good pantomimes, the prince found his princess, gave her the kiss that would awake her from her 100 year sleep, and then proposed to her. The children in the audience were so engaged with the show they were shouting at the prince to deliver his magical kiss.
But this pantomime definitely reflected its 2017 roots, there were several nods towards the society we now live in, and instead of Prince Charming fighting off Helga the dragon, Sleeping Beauty took his sword, battled Carabosse herself and then struck the dragon.
And as Nurse Nellie announced she was going to marry the king, his response was, “but you’re a bloke in a dress,” and Nellie’s prompt reply was, “it’s the 21st century and it’s an all-inclusive society.”
Well done to all the cast and crew, led by John Partridge’s infectious joy in his role as Prince Charming, a really super night out – and a deserved call out to the chorus, such an important element of every show, and especially to the little ones who were step perfect and kept in character throughout.
Sleeping Beauty is at Grove Theatre, Dunstable until Tuesday January 2 with performances at various times, including matinees. Tickets cost from £12.75. Box office 01582 602080 (option 7) or see the website for full details and to book online: www.groveteheatre.co.uk

The finale on press night. Picture by Heather Jan Brunt

The cast at the after show party on press night. By Heather Jan Brunt

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