A beauty of a panto - oh yes it is!

There is nothing like a dame . . . and Iain Lauclan is one of panto's best, seen here (right) as Nanny Knot with John Webb as the pottering King Cuthbert. Pictures: Robert Day

Sleeping Beauty

The Belgrade Theatre, Coventry

*****

IT WAS with inappropriate dread that I set off for the Belgrade's Sleeping Beauty. I simply hadn't grasped what extraordinary production values a Pantomime in the provinces was capable of today.  

In Mozart terms, that's like sneering on the way to The Magic Flute, surmising it couldn't nearly measure up to Figaro.

This deliciously in-your-face show, exuding excellence in every department - direction, design, the two stunningly ticklish leading roles - was written and directed by Iain Lauchlan, and presented, in association with the Belgrade, by his company Imagine Theatre, which masterminds some 40 or so tongue-in-cheek Christmas shows across the country. 

If Lauchlan can deliver quality of this kind, seasonal Pantomime is in grave danger of being revolutionised. Virtually gone are the merely corny, hackneyed and predictable. 

Instead comes a newly scripted, well-gauged, genuinely funny show for all ages: not Tchaikovsky's Sleeping Beauty, or some Hans Christian Andersen-like offshoot, but something both sunnier and richly darker; more like the Brothers Grimm or, say, Hansel and Gretel.  

Designer Mark Walters is a vast part of this scintillating show's success. His multicolour set, garishly ripe mixed with the possibly economical, and superbly constructed, yields delight after delight; but more important, props (the kitchen scene, for instance) are a hoot and the costumes – especially Lauchlan's seven or so changes as the impossible larger than life, achingly funny nurse Nanny Knot – were out of this world.  

It's easy for Pantomime – or any comic - costumes to acquire a jokey dressing-up box quality: starting to lose their bloom, a bit creased; crumpled, faded, passé. Not so here for a second: the quality of their fashioning is worthy of a Pantomime Oscar. 

Craig Hollingsworth as Muddles shows consummate skill in working an audience - oh yes he does . . .

All the more impressive, then, that they were generated in the Belgrade's own studios, one advantage, perhaps, of the handsome rear stage extension, which the Belgrade's front-of-house area and auditorium have, admittedly, yet to match. 

Yet the Belgrade's acoustics are fine. For a start, both the Good Fairy (Hollie Anne Cartwright) and the show's major-domo, Muddles (Craig Hollingsworth) had first-class diction, attractive presence, beautifully chiselled characters and oodles of personality. Hollingsworth's interaction with the audience is quite superb: yet wholly fresh and original, for gags aside, Lauchlan's shrewd, wittily-wrought script so eschews the obvious that Muddles, the Buttons of this show, feels like an entirely novel creation.  

Hollingsworth, either as young as he seems or amazingly adept at playing a sort of indeterminate late teenager, is a complete natural. Yet you can tell that a huge amount of thought, calculation and intelligent hard graft has gone into the role, to lend him identity and differentiate him it from the hack, two-dimensional figure so characteristic of Panto. Never missing a trick, Hollingsworth's put-upon Muddles – a mixture of Everyman, court jester and shop-floor frontman – is a glorious creation; owing his ingenuity, doubtless, to detailed plans worked out with Lauchlan, merged with sheer native genius. The hand of meticulous design is on everything about this show: the seeming effortlessness conceals hard work and much intelligent thought.  

I missed the incident-prone Press Night, when technicalities played havoc with the production, but the next day yielded a high-jinks variant, when a string of sausages discarded to the wings resisted as stubbornly as a Pantomime donkey.

A series of glorious ad-libs ensued, something along the lines of Pete and Dud or vintage Benny Hill, with the actors struggling to keep straight faces. It emerged as a side-splitting sequence of verbal and visual mishaps; achingly funny, especially as contrasted with the perfectly-honed precision of everything else; except that the ad-libs felt honed too. 

There were several nicely extended cameos: Katy Stephens as the Bad Fairy was one of the weaker, armed with an infuriatingly empty leer, enunciating variably and frankly clichéd; but she got considerably better, her script (arguably the weakest of the show), was partly to blame; and cardboard, impossibly two-dimensional villains are, after all, grist to the mill with Pantos.  

If she has the vocals, Stephens would have made a really very acceptable Queen of the Night in Mozart's The Magic Flute; that, at least, is what she looked like. 

Iain Lauchlan as Nanny Knot in a fetching little(ish) number which appears to have been styled on the rear of a 1959 Cadillac Sedan de Ville

Her aide-de-camp, the oafish (or Lord of the Rings-ish) Gob (Lee Samuel), with Glaswegian accent to match, is more successful, though the accent occasionally clouds his diction. ‘Yob' might have been just as appropriate a name. The King (Cuthbert) is a potterer, and John Webb could potter for England; his dotty scenes early on added a lot, although here again the script might have developed him a little further. That leaves Prince and Princess. Morna MacPherson is a traditional leading beau, narrowly skirting the vapid; Lindsay Harding a touching, fey belle dormante. Each could have done with a bit of pepping up - whether a fault in direction, script, actors, or all three.  

One of the exquisite moments in Iain Lauchlan's staging is the Act I final tableau, in which all fall asleep, a beautifully contrived, Nanny-free piece of blocking, reprised - to my eye, perfectly - for the start of Act II. This was one of countless points at which Marcus Robinson's lighting, well-mapped out, scrupulously attentive to detail, got it right and right again. The musical score, with a small band, seemed less distinctive, but the group's execution under Glenn Hogue, who also played keyboards, was immensely sound and characterful. 

If this Belgrade show felt like the very apex of Pantomime excellence, it was almost all down to Iain Lauchlan. Dame Nanny Knot deserves to go down amongst the legendary creations of the genre. Wickedly – but rightly - awarding himself the only spotlit solo entry from the rear stalls –a grotesque, bulbous apparition - he is in top gear before even reaching the stage. As director, even in scenes where Nanny is crazily cavorting (always under control) he is scrupulous not to neglect the others.  

This Pantomine Dame's quick-swap garbs - some seven-plus total changes, plus a fabulous new colour-coded attire for the entire ensemble at the curtain-call - are stupendous, and wonderful on the eye. If that lot cost the Belgrade a bomb (although with their backstage talent, it may not have done), it warranted every penny. His make-up, too, is to die for. 

Larger than life, an aproned buxom Britannia, Iain Lauchlan dominates the Belgrade stage without greedily upstaging his cast. His attentiveness engenders a marvel of well-marshalled teamwork, as well as a masterpiece of comic timing, which I compare elsewhere to the unsurpassed Desmond Barrit (of RSC and National Theatre fame). I hope to see more of Lauchlan's, or his company's, work anon: I anticipate it, too, will be knockout.  To 05-01-13.  

Roderic Dunnett 

Meanwhile behind you . . .

****

THIS might be Sleeping Beauty but could just as easily be called the Ian and Craig show.

Celebrated panto dame Ian Laughlin has a long association with the Belgrade in the festive season and is not only the writer and director but the star as Nanny Knot delighting the audience with his lively rapport.

Muddles (Craig Hollingsworth) awarded the role of master of ceremony joins Nanny with a collection of puns and innuendos that appealed to all ages.

Another memorably performer was Katy Stephens as the Bad Fairy. She fulfilled her duty in causing hissing and anxious looks in some of the under fives in the audience. She also made a good passing attempt at a few lyrics imitating Marilyn Monroe rendition of ‘'Happy Birthday to you''.

The favourite scene from a straw poll in the interval was a prolonged slapdash icing of the cake, enhanced by a volunteer dad, Paul, who following initial reluctance submitted to the flying/skidding icing cake activities. This new found stardom resulted in Paul volunteering to return.

Later four small children volunteers seemed undaunted  by a friendly interview by Muddles and a gloriously overdressed Brittannia.

Costumes, particularly Laughlin's, were a spectacular part of the show, incorporating the likes of  bagpipes, pies and the Flintstones along with bird and egg hairstyles.

 The excellent sets and sophisticated scene changes were impressive for their mechanics and speed of change and the Prince's fight with the Bad Fairy, ending in the slaying of a ferocious dragon, even stopped younger audience members swinging their luminous swords.

The story was adapted but remained fairly accurate until near the end. Following considerable suggestions , with audience participation and a song,  that we were in for a double wedding with Nanny and King and the Princess and Prince that is as far as it got with the show ending abruptly with another merry song and dance.

Chris Inman

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