Well, this certainly is a lively pantomime.
As the house lights dim in the comfortable surroundings of the Capitol Theatre, I wonder how this year’s show will inject life into the story of a girl who falls asleep for a hundred years.
In previous winters I’ve watched Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and Jack and the Beanstalk at this popular Horsham venue, which were all energetic adventures infused with magic.
But, while Sleeping Beauty is easily as enchanting as these tales, its main character doesn’t sound like panto-land’s most active resident.
Thankfully, the Capitol team pack this year’s festive extravaganza with dynamic dance routines, rapid-fire gags, stirring songs and a breathless (and ridiculous) rendition of The Twelve Days of Christmas.
There’s also an extended sequence (the show’s highlight for this reviewer) where the gang travel 100 years into the ‘distant future’ of 2018, stopping off in the ’60s and ’90s to enjoy some iconic pop and rock music. This allows James Dinsmore, playing King Joe, to show off his dance moves, deep voice and hilarious facial expressions as he pays tribute to Elvis Presley. It also lets singer Ben Ofoedu, playing the hapless henchman Herman, to break character for a while, get behind his DJ deck and treat us to Darude’s ‘Sandstorm’ and, of course, ‘Turn Around’ by Phats & Small. No kidding, Ben gets the entire audience up and dancing for this part of the production.
So, contrary to its title, Sleeping Beauty doesn’t stop to rest.
However, it does make time amid the mayhem to deliver its core themes about the importance of being kind and being a good friend, as well as the power of true love.
The easy-to-follow plot concerns Princess Aurora of Horshamia who is cursed as a baby by the evil Carabosse. The mean-spirited fairy declares that Aurora will prick her finger before her 18th birthday, which will kill her. Unable to undo the spell, Fairy Good Heart (think about that name) changes it to say that Aurora will fall into a deep 100-year sleep if she pricks her finger. The King, Nurse Nora and Lester the Jester keep the princess hidden (and away from needles) for almost 18 years, also keeping her ignorant of her royal lineage. But, as Aurora’s 18th birthday approaches, Prince Rupert of Crawlania appears on the scene and falls in love with her. Then, with the help of the not-so-bad henchman Herman, Carabosse figures out where the princess is and decides to introduce her to a spinning wheel.
Nicole Faraday, who played Dr Heather Lincoln in Casualty and Snowball Merriman in Bad Girls, makes a wonderfully wicked panto villain. She sneers and cackles through every scene, boasting about her dark intentions in a way that just makes kids want to boo. She’s a strong singer too, giving her baddie’s big musical numbers a sassy and highly theatrical flair.
The dim-witted Herman is played endearingly by Ben Ofoedu, who gets a few boos at first with his ominous entrance until it becomes clear that he’s really a good guy who fell in with a bad crowd. Ben’s exaggerated movements and facial expressions seem a bit odd at first but they become very funny as the show progresses and we realise how little Herman understands about the world around him. Gradually, the ‘boos’ turn to ‘awws’ as he reveals more and more about his true nature.
Heart FM’s Nicola Hume is a joy to watch as Fairy Good Heart, playing the smiley, upbeat role with enthusiasm but also adding the occasional sarcastic aside. Working in radio has clearly paid off too as Nicola handles the singing very nicely.
James Dinsmore can sing well too, but his real strengths lie in portraying the warm and lovable father figure of the panto, as well as having an unflinching commitment to silliness in the aforementioned Elvis impression.
James Fletcher offers a different kind of clowning as Lester the Jester, telling one corny joke after another until he gets the audience groaning like they’re supposed to. He’s quick too, both in the chaotic comedy routines and in his ability to improvise and interact with the audience effectively.
Hywel Dowsell has the same gift as Nurse Nora, reacting to any unexpected moments with great comic timing and hilarious ad-libs, all delivered with the mumsy attitude you’d expect from a traditional dame.
Meanwhile, Sean Smith gives us a strong hero, equipped with a particularly strong singing voice as the dashing Prince Rupert. While not as outwardly funny as the other performers, Sean more than makes up for it with his stunning musical numbers.
Finally, Natasha Hoeberigs is a delightful Princess Aurora. Originally from Australia and having grown up in New Zealand, Natasha never saw a pantomime as a child and is a relative newcomer to the genre. But you’d never guess that. She’s bubbly, confident and warm-hearted in the lead role, and she performs her solo songs brilliantly. And, in a surprise twist to this traditional tale, Natasha gets to show her character’s courage and strength during a fight with Carabosse’s giant scaly pet. As Natasha said in a previous interview, princesses have to be brave as well as beautiful.
Overall then, Sleeping Beauty is another fun-filled family panto for Horsham that mixes tradition and innovation, offering top-notch performances from everyone involved, including the back-up dancers, singers and stage crew.
The costumes are dazzling, the scenery has a pleasing storybook style and the direction by Nick Mowat is pacy, witty and relentlessly cheerful.
There’s no chance you’ll fall asleep during this show, but you’ll definitely sleep well afterwards.
Sleeping Beauty is at The Capitol, Horsham, until January 6. Call the box office on 01403 750220.
Click here to watch our video interviews with the stars.