Fairy Tales hark from oral tradition; passed eternally from mouth to ear, they rarely have the chance to crystallise fully into a set version but are given licence to forever morph, their details dependent upon the listener’s interpretation (and subsequent re-telling) of the story, an embellishment here, a twist there. They are free, transmutable.
Director extraordinaire Sally Cookson has taken maximum advantage of this fact and, with her team, has created for Bristol Old Vic as different and as refreshing a version of Sleeping Beauty as you’re ever likely to encounter. Blending the story that many of us have come to know with the Welsh folk tale, The Leaves that Hung but Never Grew, Dramaturg Adam Peck has helped construct a family Christmas show that, very thankfully, does away with the notion of a Disneyesque fairy princess, giving us instead a heroine in Deilen (played by Kezrena James) that you’d naturally like your daughter to aspire to: tough; adventurous, curious and, ultimately, loving.
In the pantos of my childhood, women almost always played the Handsome Prince. These days, that role is given to a man, often an ‘unknown’. Here, David Emmings takes on the part of Prince Percy but never in that thigh slapping, “I’m going to find that needy, sobbing, romanticised, victim-of-a-woman and make her mine” way. No, none of it. In fact, literally the reverse.
There is plenty of the gender-swapping joviality that we’ve come to expect from a traditional show and you couldn’t help but be delighted by the Old Vic’s flock of fairies/Wise Women (the correct collective fairy noun is actually ‘herd’ but flock works better in this instance, trust me), a gorgeous gaggle of (mostly) men-as-women ‘do-gooders’, each dressed in her unique – while simultaneously and head-scratchingly uniform – costume, designed by Katie Sykes with her now expected attention to detail.
Fairies … May I take this opportunity to name Dominic Allen as my Actor of the year? Having been fortunate enough to have seen him in Love for Love and The Heresy of Love at Bristol Old Vic and The Boy on the Swing at Brewery Theatre, and now cast as Wise Woman (Brummie) Thelma in Sleeping Beauty, I enjoy the slant that he brings to each part he plays, always with a sly and quiet humour, as though he’s really in the skin of his character, inviting you to become part of the ‘joke’, an accomplice.
Fairies … Sylvia is the shunned member of the troupe and one who goes out of her way to distance herself further from her former flock and, if she can, control it and everything/one else silly enough to be in her way. She is bad. As Sylvia, Stu Goodwin revels in her blue-haired wickedness, excels at her evil cackling and, always a stickler for a panto Dame and as much camp as you can throw at me, Goodwin was my absolute favourite character of the night. Natch. My 9 year old daughter was surprised by this, “Why would you like a bad person?” Her bright evening star? Deilen (well, good then!)
Through all of this plays the music of the brilliant Benji Bower, a Jazz-inspired score that is delivered with deftness and enjoyment throughout by Musicians Ruth Hammond, Brian Hargreaves and Pat Moran, whose ever-so-English rendition of Livin’-on-a-Prayer/Like a Prayer warms up the audience more than a glass of mulled wine ever could. This trio doesn’t stop giving, diving on stage, playing Santa knows how many instruments between them! Rocking.
Yes, as always, BOV’s 2015 Christmas Show is a winner. They can’t help it.
Sleeping Beauty plays at Bristol Old Vic until 17th January 2016