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Reviews / Panto as it should be: silly, bawdy, loud, heart-warming, and unbelievably daft

Our reviewer Alex Garrick-Wright is full of praise for the Sleeping Beauty cast but finds issues with the sound undermining their strong performance

A scene from 2018's panto with Iain Souter (left) and Robert Lowes. Photo: Malcolm Younger/Millgaet Media

It wouldn’t be December without the Garrison Theatre being dusted off and filled with ecstatic children for panto season. This year’s offering Sleeping Beauty is Open Door Drama’s take on the classic fairytale.

The panto was an intensely Scottish take on the well-worn story – half the characters looked like they’d fallen off a shortbread tin, complete with a talking portrait of Bonnie Prince Charlie and Flora MacDonald as a Greek chorus who warmed the audience up.

Beginning with a display of highland dancing (which, while well done, cooled the audience back down again), the first act centres around the christening of Princess Mirrie, put under a curse by the one fairy godmother who was not invited to the ceremony. Since that particular fairy, Belladonna (played with gusto by John Haswell), is a baby-eating psychopath commanding a small army of evil bogles, it seems like a curse was in the offing whether she was invited or not.

One cackling evil spell later, and the darling baby princess is condemned to die on her 16th birthday, after pricking her finger on a spinning wheel. Only after the intervention of the benevolent Fairy Bluebell (Caroline Leask) is the infant’s life spared – but instead of dying, she and castle will fall into a sleep until awakened by the kiss of a prince.

The ‘benevolent’ Fairy Bluebell is played by Caroline Leask. Photo: Malcolm Younger/Millgaet Media

The first act has plenty of silly business building up to the christening, and then a very clever whizz through Princess Mirrie’s childhood, to bring the action up to the dreaded 16th birthday. The panto staples are all there: the friendly, 4th-wall-breaking Tavish (Iain Souter, having an absolute ball); the dame, Peggy the cook (a magnificent Robert Lowes), and slightly groan-worthy topical jokes (cue Brexit, Beatrice Wishart, and one really, really unexpected Prince Andrew joke that had a very select, very dark section of the audience in stitches).

There was also plenty of throwing things into the audience and characters chasing each other about the theatre, as is tradition. The first act is punctuated by three haggis hunters, led by Tavish, hunting ‘the Great Haggis’, a genuinely impressive, seven feet tall creature that looked like the Sugar Puffs monster’s ginger cousin).

Unfortunately, these sequences highlighted the major issue with Sleeping Beauty – the sound. Some of the younger actors were almost impossible to hear, even sitting close to the stage. This is always an issue in the Garrison, but given the amount of scenes and dialogue that the younger actors had, it was very noticeable. In one instance, the only indication a joke had been told was the rimshot from the drummer (the ‘ba-dum-tshh’) following completely unintelligible dialogue.

The wedding of Prince Hector (Nicola Fleck) & Princess Mirrie (Leah Johnson). Photo: Malcolm Younger/Millgaet Media

The music was also a major issue. While the musicians did a good job, their placement along the front of the stage, playing towards the stage, meant that they completely drowned out the singing in most of the songs.

John Haswell’s spirited delivery of Michael Jackson’s 1987 hit Bad was let down by the lyrics being washed away by a wave of music. He honestly might as well have been miming. If the cast noticed the audience being subdued during some of the musical numbers – that’s why. The only times the songs cut through was when there were enough actors singing to break through the musical barricade in front of them, or they had an exceptional voice (Shaela Halcrow, the Queen, deserves special mention for having a voice that was clear as crystal no matter what she was doing or where she was positioned).

The panto only truly felt like it came alive in the second act, after 100 years had passed. Iain Souter’s jakey Tavish IV (great-great-great-grandson of Act 1’s Tavish) was far funnier than his predecessor, and Nicola Fleck sparkled as the dashingly Glaswegian Prince Hector.

Prince Hector was woefully underused; Ms Fleck did a wonderful job with what few lines she had, but the character does very little aside from kiss the princess awake – and after this drops out of the plot entirely, not even getting to face the villainous Belladonna. Similarly wasted was Hannah Whiley as Dangleberry, Belladonna’s right-hand-minion. Ms Whiley only really got any lines in Act 2, but relished them with wicked glee and gave a great, if far too short, performance.

The cast was full of stand-out turns, from the Ms Halcrow’s delightfully regal-but-anxious Queen, to Mr Souter’s scenery-chewing Tavish (both I and IV), and Mr Lowes’ incredible, saucy dame. John Haswell, as usual, was bordering on Ming the Merciless levels of absurdly evil, and loving every second of it. And again, Ms Fleck’s Prince Hector and Ms Whiley were criminally underused, doing great work with what little they were given.

The audience, especially the kids, lapped it up, but were notably unengaged in the parts of the panto where they clearly couldn’t hear what was going on. It’s a shame that the cast’s strong work was continually undermined by this continual problem.

Nevertheless, Sleeping Beauty is what a panto should be; silly, bawdy, loud, heart-warming, and unbelievably daft, with enough humour for the adults and riling the kids up so much that they’re not going to sleep that night. Bravo!