It seems there has been hyperinflation in Fairyland: Sleeping Beauty has slept not just for one hundred years, but for four centuries. Having fallen asleep in Tudor England, she wakes up to find herself in the Swinging Sixties in “Hippy Chippy” Norton. The “Chip” stock rock festival is in full swing down the road, where Jagger Prince is the star act. This is a bit of a departure from the traditional Chipping Norton panto we have come to know and love; but in other respects, the traditions are maintained, including the much-appreciated throwing of real sweets.
Our family’s favourite traditional feature of the annual Chippy panto is its dedication to good old-fashioned storytelling, which sometimes gets forgotten in pantomimes elsewhere in favour of glitz, spectacle and maximising audience participation. Writer Andrew Pollard and Director John Terry have clearly put a lot of thought into their version of the old tale, in terms of both working out all the detailed intricacies of the story and speculating about what it would really be like to awaken in another era.
There is a botanic theme throughout, from the Tudor Rose motif of the first act to the Flower Power generation setting of the second. The good Fairy Flax, patron of fabric production, provides the narrative link with the spindle and spinning wheel; but it is the evil Belladonna Bindweed who provides the inspiration for the more imaginative and successful scenes in the panto.
My favourite episode in the first half was the scene set in the wood, with its Latin American rhythms and dancing. The choreography in this scene was excellent and the four young child-Pippins revelled in their parts as Hemlock, Ragwort, Nightshade and Toadstool (whose costume was perfect). It included a neat re-enactment of how Belladonna had, with echoes of Rapunzel, poisoned Sleeping Beauty’s plant-pilfering mother. (This was the plot device to explain why Sleeping Beauty needed a Nanny – the pantomime Dame.)
I won’t spoil the surprises by describing it, but suffice to say, the most lively, creative and original scenes in the second half also featured our heroes tussling with Belladonna and her various forms of 20th century villainy.
The two most engaging characters, who established the best connection with the audience, were Willy Wallflower (Christian James), the Buttons-equivalent character, who was called upon to be gardener, chef, jester and MC by turn; and Nanny Fanny Forget-Me-Not (played comparatively straight by Eamonn Fleming). There was a degree of 21st century politically correct revisionism in some of the others – the King changes a nappy on stage and ends up wearing a pinny, whereas the Princess Rose comes out in a skintight Action Girl jumpsuit to rescue the Prince.
There was some great creativity in the sets and props, such as the construction of the pie machine and the palace kitchen set. I loved the huge thick Tarzan-worthy tangle of creepers round the princess’s bed, which really did look as if they had been 400 years in the growing. The Dame’s costumes were gorgeous (especially her Tudor outfit, reminiscent of Lewis Carroll’s Duchess), but may have consumed too large a proportion of the costume budget. The evil Belladonna Bindweed was constrained by an emerald-green dress which effectively tied her knees tightly together: it did give her a very plant-like shape and a very triffid-like totter.
This was the 9th public performance and the theatre was almost entirely full with a typical 6pm Saturday night crowd of young and old, but this pantomime wasn’t received as rapturously as others in the past. At times the audience was quite unresponsive. The large cub scout group was vastly entertained by the smelly-baby-poo-and-fart jokes and enjoyed being water-pistolled with “olive oil” by the Nanny, and the older generation laughed at some of the one-liners and puns, but there were also jokes which raised neither titter nor groan. Half the audience didn’t understand the Nanny’s catchphrase, which was consequently unmemorable and her “call and response” therefore elicited only the odd mumble (compared with confident shouting out of Willy’s entirely comprehensible double entendre).
My overall impression was one of pulled punches and missed opportunities. For instance, the pie-making scene looked as if it was heading for a really exciting custard-pie fight, but the stack of pies was simply put down off stage instead. When there were chances to get the audience really excited (eg when the prince is about to kiss the wrong sleeper or the princess is about to prick her finger) the actors simply didn’t go the full nine yards and milk the moment. Pantomime audiences have certain expectations it is wise to meet: for example, if they have to sing a song at all, they will sing it more than once, and compete, one side of the theatre against the other, so they end up singing it with gusto. It is a mistake to make pantomime audiences stand up to sing, because the most important half of the audience – the little children – then can’t see, which makes them unhappy. Perhaps over the next 90-odd performances the cast might make some adjustments, to carry the audience along with more consistent enthusiasm. Go for it, Chippy – we’re behind you!