Review: Sleeping Beauty at the Hippodrome

I love panto, I love its traditions, its history, its very Englishness and its tendency to throw up hairy men in backless dresses and tights. So much that I’ve spend way too much time dragging the medium into the 21st Century on Twitter, but last night I went to see my first actual in-the-flesh with-well-know-people panto for about 20 years.

The Hippodrome’s Sleeping Beauty is a thoroughly modern panto too, the 3D (yes really), a character out of adverts (although everyone loves Churchill the dog) and a star that has risen only in the environs of reality TV. That said it still has all the proper ingredients: a dame, the chameleonic (as long as it’s within the tall bloke in dress category) Ceri Dupree, fart jokes, songs that seem to hold up the action, references to nearby towns being uninhabitable, everything you’d expect.

Birmingham Hippodrome

I’m no great Joe Pasquale fan, as indeed I wasn’t a big Russ Abbot fan the last time I went to a panto (that too was at the Hip, Aladdin), but it’s odd how some actors or comedians seem only to really be at home in this special brand of theatre. It’s difficult to see how some ever exist outside it.

The problem with some of the big panto stories is that the “main characters” aren’t usually very interesting — handsome princes and beautiful princesses are one dimensional and dull, which means it’s left to the characters on the fringe, the villains, the “Buttons”, the dame to carry the story. Here both the prince and princess are pretty, and can hold a tune but do very little to hold the attention, it’s the interplay between Muddles (Pasquale) and his ‘mother’ Lady Passionella that carries the plot between each set piece. It’s also where the big laughs — and there are a lot — come from.

This, however, is not Sleeping Beauty’s biggest plot hole — where do the cast get all their intricate costumes from in a land where spinning cotton has been impossible for 20 years?

To start with, even Muddles isn’t a sympathetic character, he’s just too pathetic and actually annoying rather than mischievous. It’s not until something bad happens to him, I don’t think I’m spoiling the plot to suggest that the princess prefers the (slightly vampiric) prince to her lovelorn best friend, that you can really engage. It’s no surprise that the kids in the audience shout louder for him when he’s down.

It’s in the very modernity that the production has it’s high points and disappointments. The 3D sequences are well done technically, well integrated into the plot and genuinely scary — at least for arachnophobes. I had to shut my eyes, and the screams from the kids were surely going to be their formative theatre experience. Everything technically worked well — there was a lot of use of wires, and the opening number from the evil witch proved that Bassey should do more gigs dangling from the roof. But elsewhere where the panto felt contemporary I fell away from it; panto needs broad targets and there simply doesn’t seem to be a shared culture for it to riff off. I lost count of the number of asides about the X-Factor which I just didn’t really get, and songs from Dirty Dancing aren’t really an emotional experience — more a lazyily tabloid prescribed one.

Bringing other contemporary iconography (Batman, in 60s vein, do the kids get that? A Camilla Parker-Bowles sequence that felt a few years out of date) didn’t seem to have the right resonance either. There was however a huge response to an appearance of Passionella in a costume made of fruit, marimba-ing across stage — which suggests that Carmen Miranda is somehow memetically passed along like some form of race-memory. Modernity does work in the design, however, the henchmen seem straight out of The Mighty Boosh with LED eyes and fur everywhere.

Panto is at its best when big — and this production is huge. It’s also best when it’s as silly as possible, and Joe Pasquale certainly manages that. Not quite the “pantomime of my dreams”, I have some pretty odd dreams, but certainly not a nightmare either. Take the kids, and get them to understand that it’s a bloke in a dress, even if not everyone leaving the theatre last night was quite sure…