Originally published on Whats On Stage
If any credence was paid to Conservative MP Peter Bone‘s ill-informed remarks about the gender shifting of the principal roles in the Bristol Old Vic’s Sleeping Beauty (he called it ‘political correctness gone mad’), it is soon dispelled as utter baloney by Sally Cookson‘s inventive take.
This is a production that takes the initial fairy tale as a springboard and runs with it, so it becomes its own thing. Cookson’s version is a melange that incorporates different story beats and a separate plot strand from a Welsh folk poem The Leaves that Hung but Never Grew. And she has every right to construct the characters and narrative as she likes: much like the Brothers Grimm did with Giambattista Basile’s original.Pantomime has also blurred the gender lines for many years. Is Kezrena James’ hero (no longer a Prince but a streetwise orphan) any different from the principal boys which have graced the stage since the days of Marie Lloyd?
Looking beyond the controversy, there are many things here to like. Visually it looks great, as though Bristol Old Vic has splurged its entire year’s production budget on Michael Vale’s sparse but multi-functional set, Katie Sykes vibrant costumes and Aideen Malone’s Technicolor lighting.
James is a heady mix of bravery and vulnerability as the hero who forms a touching attachment with David Emmings’ gangly schoolboy, awoken from 100 years of sleep by a not exactly romantic kiss. Ewan Black, making his professional debut, sings Benji Bower’s folk inflected score with distinction. Best of all is Kneehigh regular Stu Goodwin, who first enters out of a large birthday cake looking like like Anna Wintour in a purple wig and dark sunglasses. He dominates the stage, relishing every moment and delivering a truly memorable boo-hissable villain.
Not everything works. Devising a show from scratch in six weeks is always going to be risky and structurally it feels jumbled at points, with certain sections dragged out beyond their plot relevance. You can imagine these were probably favourite parts when the show was being made but sometimes you need to kill your darlings to ensure the storytelling is clear as possible. Still, its difficult to be a grinch at Christmas and I defy you not to leave the theatre with a smile on your face. It is impossible to resist a show that begins with an acoustic version of Bon Jovi’s ‘Living On A Prayer’, a Greek chorus of gossiping Grannies and a kick line comprised of ‘baaahing’ sheep.