Review by Daz Gale
Christmas brings with it hundreds of pantos covering every inch of the country. While it might be the star studded London Palladium pantomime and this years Mother Goose led by Sir Ian McKellen getting all the attention, there is another notable if you venture an hour outside of London to the now legendary annual panto at the Marlowe Theatre in Canterbury.
Widely regarded as one of the best producers of pantomimes in the UK, the Marlowe Theatre won Pantomime of the year at the Great British Pantomime Awards for their production last year, Jack and the Beanstalk. Hoping to make it two wins in a row as they produce their 18th pantomime, they have really gone all out this year for their version of Sleeping Beauty with a TV celebrity and an award-winning West End leading lady alongside returning favourites.
While the use of a plot is usually secondary when it comes to pantomimes, for this version of Sleeping Beauty, they stick to it more than any other panto I have seen this year, cleverly tying the various plot points together in a refreshingly cohesive story. We all know the drill with this one – a Princess is cursed to prick her finger on a spindle and falls into a lengthy sleep where only a kiss can wake her up.
West End star Carrie Hope Fletcher makes her panto debut playing the villain Carrie-bosse. Following her star turn in Andrew Lloyd Webbers Cinderella (or BAD Cinderella as it must now be known), she swaps one fairytale for another – this time getting to play a character who is ACTUALLY bad. As it goes, cursing princesses intending them to die is a tiny step up from graffitiing penises on statues which must be the entry point for any murderers (now it all makes sense). Carrie has proven her versatility as an actress repeatedly this year with unexpected choices including her excellent turn in the play The Caucasian Chalk Circle. Here, she adds another string to her bow, camping it up brilliantly as the villain in a truly sensational star turn. The only problem is it is difficult to boo her when she really is that good – is it wrong I was almost rooting for her to succeed? (That may say more about me, to be fair).
Strictly Come Dancing Ore Oduba gives a suitably charming performance as Prince Michael, while CBeebies star Jennie Dale is incredibly loveable in her sweet turn as Fairy Moonbeam. Ellie Kingdon might not have much to do as the titular Sleeping Beauty but makes the most of her limited time, while Max Fulham demonstrates an incredible talent with his ventriloquist act as Jangles, showing immense charisma and likeability which regularly made me howl with laughter. (Dare I say I found his performance better than another high profile ventriloquist act I saw in a pantomime last week)
Returning to the Marlowe panto for the 14th year is Ben Roddy whose pantomime Dame has become somewhat of a tradition here. The moment he steps on to the stage as Nurse Nellie, there are immediate smiles on hundreds of faces in the audience and it’s clear to see why. Effortlessly stepping in to Nellies ridiculous outfits, Ben gives a masterclass performance in how to play a Pantomime Dame, coming dangerously close to crossing the line with smut, innuendo and genuine hilarity, but always with such a degree of intelligence that it goes over the childrens heads.
The biggest star of Sleeping Beauty is the writing itself. If some people may look down on pantomime as not as intelligent as other theatre, this production proves them wrong with Paul Hendy’s writing truly phenomenal to direct. Constantly clever and funny, this is a wonderfully consistent production that never has a dull moment. The biggest laughs (for me anyway) were given to Carrie Hope Fletcher who named her two vicious velociraptors “Lloyd” and “Webber”, is threatened with a punishment of starring in another one of Bad Lord Lloyd Webbers shows, and at one point brilliantly declares during a particularly silly moment “Three years in Les Mis for THIS”. Fans of Cinderella can look out for a moment where a piece of dialogue is repeated – a cute little niche reference for the musical theatre fans in the audience.
As you would expect with a panto, musical numbers are shoehorned in to the story, seemingly randomly. While Sam Smith’s recent number one ‘Unholy’ makes no sense, you go with the flow an enjoy the opportunity of hearing these fantastic performers sing. It is no secret that Carrie Hope Fletcher has a mind-blowing voice and she gets several opportunities to show it off here, at one point being joined by Jennie Dale for a storming duet proving the vocal highlight of the show.
The way conventional pantomime sequences are used in this production is a testament to its genius. One highlight sees Ben Roddy and Max Fulham perform a fantastic sketch in their “Wheelbarrow of pun” featuring the names of countless musicals. They are joined by Ore Oduba in a sequence that was perhaps the standout of the show, imagining what they might be doing in the future. Full of chaotic madness, this number was so messy (in a good way) that a special mat had to be put out for them. Seeing the three of them constantly slip and slide around was a visual joke to be enjoyed by people of all ages and had me feeling like a kid again myself as tears of laughter rolled down my face. There’s another moment in the panto where cast members appear at every corner on every level soaking the audience, proving nobody is safe!
Pantomime is supposed to be harmless fun and usually always does the job so it feels unseasonal to compare them. However, it is clear to see why this theatre won the award for Best Pantomime last year. Having been to a few myself over the last few weeks, I have to say this was the best panto I have seen myself this year. An amazing cast and brilliantly clever and witty writing meant this was fun for kids and big kids alike. Absolutely faultless in its execution, there really is nothing sleepy about this beautiful production. Could this be the greatest panto in all the land? Oh yes it is!
Sleeping Beauty plays at the Marlowe Theatre until 8th January 2023. Tickets from https://marlowetheatre.com/
Photos by Pamela Raith