For its pantomime this year, Watford Palace theatre has gone all glam rock. Fairy Fender (Thomas Fabian Parrish) is a guitar-playing, catsuit-wearing rock-god, who shows us a ‘good time’ by taking us on a time-travelling voyage with stops in 1957 (to buy a new guitar), 1439, 1457 and then into the future as he battles with the evil fairy Pestilentia Blight (Arabella Rodrigo) over the fate of Sleeping Beauty (Nikita Johal). There’s plenty of local action as the whole thing takes place in Cassiobury Park, and Dame Nanny Fanny (Richard Emerson), a fan of Watford FC, dons her supporters bra (‘plenty of support, but no cups’) and of course the musical climax is a tribute to Watford’s own Elton John. Helping the principals out is the piggy clown ‘Sowesta’ – a brilliantly assured comic performance from Lionie Spilsbury in a well-padded costume.
Pantos are like camembert, they get better as they get older, so the first Saturday matinée of the run is perhaps the most challenging for any panto team – the natural anarchy of the big school groups is absent, and the house is as yet quite sparsely populated by audiences who aren’t even yet on holiday. We bellowed the responses with such gusto that the lady in the row in front of us accused us of being plants in the pay of the theatre, but the kids in the back row alongside us certainly struggled to maintain their attention during the lengthy expositions. I watched one child open her Dairy Box with great anticipation only to be outraged that there was only one layer of chocolates and tip the lot onto the floor in frustration. She spent the next two scenes scrabbling around under the seat in front of her using her fairy wand for illumination to retrieve her lost treasures. Nevertheless, by the schoolroom scene we were ‘back in the room’ to enjoy the slapstick of Sowesta being catapulted off the bench whenever the King (John Macneill) and his daughter jumped up to answer questions. And by the time the curse of the spinning wheel came around, all chocolates were forgotten. The bright daylight of the birthday party was transformed into forbidding shadows as the spinning wheel appeared magically within the cake in a neat transformation of both set and mood, and poor old Sleeping Beauty falls under the magical spell. As in previous years, the sets are beautifully designed by Cleo Pettitt.
Sleeping Beauty is a pretty existential story if you think about it. Not only is there all that time-travel stuff (beautifully brought out in this production) but there’s also a central focus on parenting – the ultimately futile attempts by the princess’s dad and nanny to protect her as she approaches adulthood and the danger of the curse increases. For the princess there is the increasing feeling of being bound by unnecessary and draconian rules – rules to be resisted and disobeyed as she becomes curious about the outside world. Then the final inevitability of the finger-prick and the sudden isolation that follows – well, almost isolation, because thank goodness Fairy Fender is able to enchant the entire court asleep too, sequestered behind the brambles, to wake again when Sleeping Beauty does. In the second act, when Sleeping Beauty awakes and, befuddled, asks where everyone is, I was so grateful to shout ‘they’re behind you’ as Nanny and the King emerged. As one gets further into middle age, this scene takes on more meaning. Imagine being able to go through the whole of adulthood with the security of your parents’ guidance available to you. Writer Andrew Pollard has another version of Sleeping Beauty running at Greenwich this year (one of our annual favourites), so it’ll be interesting to see how he inflects these themes differently there.
The world Sleeping Beauty wakes to is no picnic though, as Pestilentia Blight now rules over Watford, keeping it isolated from the rest of the world, and gas-lighting its inhabitants with frequent broadcasts of fake news via instagram and other social media. This political satire was done with a very light touch, but will surely develop as the run (and the election) progresses. The panto really hots up after the interval in fact: there’s a brilliant medley of rock tunes early in the second half and for my money one of the best UV ballets/ghost scenes in all of panto, as the principals have to battle Blight’s emoticon minions in a sort of space invaders showdown. If you haven’t sat among 300 kids shouting ‘Poo! Poo! There’s a POO behind you!’ at the top of your voice, then you haven’t lived. Here too the Dame and King come into their own with a charming duet showcasing some lovely voices. When Blight was finally vanquished, and persuaded to turn over a new leaf and become good, the transformation was so complete and convincing that a little child in the box called out ‘hello’ to her, as though she were a completely new character. ‘Oh! Hello!’ she responded in surprise. And in the song sheet competition my neighbour of the Dairy Box was so completely focussed on the show that she told her mum off for singing the verse meant for the other half of the auditorium. In fact, we all had a good time.