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Sleeping Beauty, The Fairy's Tale - Norwich Theatre (13.12.2023)

Let's start by telling you a tale about me; a person you barely know, if at all. Sometime way back in the 20th century, I was taken to the Norwich Theatre Royal panto, which was my first taste of theatre overall.

I don't remember a great deal about the show, but what I do recall most vividly from that experience is the special feeling of sitting in the rather grand auditorium, being mesmerised by the sights and sounds, and being utterly engrossed in the action. It's a feeling that has never really left me, and one which is particularly stirred up by seeing pantomimes year after year.

Surrounded by lots of delighted young faces last night, where inevitably this will have been their first experience of live theatre, my hope is that they were as awestruck and inspired by what they saw as I was 30-odd years ago. And if indeed this was their first venture into the theatre, then what a spectacular way to begin their odyssey.

Written by Joe Tracini, this alternative telling of Sleeping Beauty saw us view things from the Good Fairy's perspective, and this opened up a wacky world where we found ourselves inside The Princess' head or in Wish Land where Fairies are trained. It was frequently nonsensical, but in a fun way.

Visually, it was an absolute marvel, and huge credit must go to the production team for making this a real feast for the eyes. The sets were simply wonderful, and alongside some inventive projections and stunning lightshows, it made for a spell-binding wonder of a production.

Director Chris Cuming and Choreographer Tara Young certainly made their mark on the production with a dance-heavy show. Every routine was slick, precise, and highly energetic and made for a fantastic spectacle. It was also great to see they'd incorporated the junior ensemble into the show properly, rather than having a parade of kids in cute costumes for parents to coo over. And the children showed they really warranted a place on that stage.

The script contained quite a few nods to Joe's well-documented struggles with mental health, including a touching and impassioned speech from Joe at the end. While the earnest messages were well-intentioned, at times I couldn't help but feel some of this content had been included at the expense of gags. But maybe that was the point. Although I was disappointed with the decorating comedy skit, which felt like it was phoned in somewhat.

While the script may have lacked in jokes, Karl Queenborough's ridiculous dashing Prince gave us more than enough to chuckle at with his delivery and his physical comedy. And Hamilton fans will enjoy the nods to Karl's previous role, including a version of one of the raps from the musical.

There was no rapping from Millie O'Connell but, instead, an awesome demonstration of her vocal and dance skills. Her character was a refreshing break from the saccharine sweet Princesses of yore, and all the better for it.

To peddle the well-worn cliché, it had something for everyone; kids will have been thrilled to watch Richard Gauntlett and Joe Tracini do their thing; Corrie fans would have no doubt been delighted to see Beverley Callard letting loose as the Evil Fairy; and theatre nerds like me watched on with awe as Karl Queensborough and Millie O'Connell wowed us with their vocal and movement ability.

As Chief Executive Stephen Crocker stated in his programme notes, panto is a perfect antidote to the dark and cold weather and a distraction from things going on in the world. And I wholeheartedly agree - so come along and distract yourself. Sleeping Beauty - the Fairy's Tale continues at Norwich Theatre until 7 Jan.


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