Sleeping Beauty (Richmond Theatre)

Sleeping Beauty (Richmond Theatre, until January 8th)

Dreadful jokes, groanworthy puns, cheesy songs, toe-curling topical references, scene-stealing kids and lots of glitter are served up in Richmond Theatre’s fun-filled pantomime and once again it sets a standard that is hard to beat.

Everything you ever thought should be in a panto is delivered by the bucket load in the First Family Entertainment production of Sleeping Beauty, a show in which you will most assuredly want to stay awake.

It’s a fast and furious seasonal treat, boasting some of the best panto performers in the business, and a cracking script from Eric Potts (a prolific writer and star of pantomime across the country, who may still be remembered by Corrie fans as Diggory the baker). There’s naughtiness, nudges and nonsense, but all in the best possible taste, and containing something to enjoy for all ages.

As one might hope, there are plenty of local jokes (the ones about the railways and roadworks went down a storm) and quips based on current news stories but they don’t get in the way of the fairy tale being told properly, speedily and tidily.

Leading the pack is CBeebies star Chris Jarvis (returning to the venue for the third year in a row), who directs with seasoned professionalism and stars as a loveable Chester the Jester. His experience filters throughout the entire production. As director he adds some well-judged comic moments and also thrills and spills, especially in the Prince’s fight with the dragon.

As Chester he copes more than admirably with a succession of bad jokes, enthusing the audience with an enviable youthful vigour. He is the sort of jovial performer who you never want to see off the stage and he delights the children and oldies equally. On press night he was also called upon to deal with a lively six-year-old in the kids’ singalong section – Solomon is surely bound for theatrical success in the future!

Maureen Lipman makes a welcome return to panto as the villainous and resentful wicked fairy Carabosse, who causes the heroine to fall into her 100-year slumber after being left off the christening party guest list. She is as hissable as she needs to be, but also prevents the character being merely two-dimensional thanks to some petulant sneering, gleeful cackling, and snide asides to the audience that deserve each loud chorus of boos. She is also at the centre of a timely and funny gag near the end, which would be unfair to spoil save for the knowing nod that accompanies the line, “Breadsticks is breadsticks.”

One of the country’s best dames, Matt Rixon, is wonderful as Nursie. His towering presence never overshadows his co-stars, but he is deliciously fruity and there’s more than one wicked wink of the eye to knowing audience members. He looks splendid in a variety of outrageous outfits too, not least in a shimmering pink glittery frock in a throwback to the 60s number.  He has a great knack of delivering double entendres with an innocence that gives the adults a giggle without anything being too close to the knuckle for the children.

The two young leads burst with talent and handle their roles with humour and maturity. Dan Partridge as the Prince and Lauren Hood as Beauty are both names to look out for in the future.

Graham James as the King nails each of his “misheard” lines and works well with Tania Newton, beautifully channelling Barbara Windsor as the Queen.

The cast of villagers are wonderfully energetic and are given some tremendous dances by choreographer Katherine Iles, who also appears as the Fuchsia Fairy. There are some lovely dance moments, including a magical Nutcracker sequence where the toys in Beauty’s wardrobe come alive to protect her, a decent version of the Time Warp, and a number involving lively pensioners.

The obligatory daft song here is one of the panto classic – a version of The Twelve Days of Christmas performed by Chester, Nursie and the Prince to hilarious effect, leaving most audience members in the stalls drenched thanks to the gift on the 12th day.

Is this a panto worth going along to? Oh yes, it is – with tradition, spectacle, colour, laughs and first class performances it’s the perfect gift of entertainment this Christmas and New Year.

David Guest

Picture, Craig Sugden