This year’s must have stocking (over)filler is, apparently, the LOL Surprise ball. A huge, round, glittery sphere containing countless small gifts to elicit gasps of wonder.
It is, of course, a massively predictable piece of tat, each small item contained within as guessable as a cracker joke punchline. All that glitters is definitely plastic. Which means it has much in common with pantomime. The only thing to rival the tree for cheesy sparkle in our household’s festive must-do list, panto really is the gift that keeps on giving. The songs rattle round our heads as much as Bing and Mariah’s, the jokes pop up over end-of-term teatimes, and childhood requests for make up increase with every perusal of a pantomime dame.
Chatham is on fire this year with its production of ‘Sleeping Beauty’. While other pantos have secured big names, it’s gone for a (Liver)pool of northern talent, led by Claire Sweeney from Brookside and Hollyoaks old-timer Andrew Moss. Sweeney is a siren, vamping her way round the role of the wicked queen Carabosse, and belting out her songs with crowd-pleasing passion.
But it’s the non-names who are a real revelation. Nicola Bryan’s chipper, Northern brass-playing Fairy Fortywinks, Paul Bentley’s magnificent King Clarence, and Joe ‘The Best Buttons In The Business’ Tracini’s ever-dependable Chester the Jester all bring a freshness and on-their-toes energy to the show, keeping the pace going where it could flag, and, in Tracini’s case, poking enough holes in the fourth wall to make a window. Genuinely hilarious, he repeatedly reminds Moss, whose Prince Valiant has no idea who he is, that they worked together for years on Hollyoaks. And in a messy kitchen scene with Dame Nellie Night Nurse, he’s clearly improvising his trousers off. He has the audience howling in the aisles. If vaudeville were still a thing, Tracini would be a household name by now.
The songs are a good mix of dad-friendly classics (‘Don’t Stop Me Now’), girl-melting ballads (Sam Smith’s ‘Can I Lay By Your Side’) and some grandparent-friendly Motown, and King Clarence’s tenor is a revelation. We’re talking Bill Withers ‘Lovely Day’ levels of sustain.
There’s zero chemistry between Princess Belle and Prince Valiant, and when Carabosse demands to know ‘what’s that caterwauling?’ in response to one particularly ear-splitting Belle solo, I’m inclined to agree. But Princesses are so last decade. Who needs a flake in a pretty dress as a role model when you’ve got Fairy Fortywinks bringing her iambic pentametric A-game with earthy can-do magic, and trumpet solos to boot?
Panto is a theatrical anomaly in that the plot really isn’t central. Nobody really cares if the prince and princess get it on. We come to boo the villain, dance along with the (impressive) chorus, indulge our inner eight year-olds with the fool, exchange winks with the dame, gasp at the pyrotechnics, be wowed by the animatronics and be infected with puns and jollity. And on all those counts, you’ll be leaving Sleeping Beauty refreshed, wide awake and full of delight.