Thursday, 3 December 2015

'Sleeping Beauty' at Bristol Old Vic

Photo: Steve Tanner
Maybe I’ve had my head buried in the cultural sand but I managed to miss the hoo-hah that for this year’s Christmas show the Bristol Old Vic was turning the world on its head by, gasp, casting a MAN as Sleeping Beauty and, shock, a WOMAN as the person who wakes him from his enforced slumber. Will nobody think of the children?!

I’ll remove my tongue from my cheek to say that when I sat down to watch Sally Cookson’s Sleeping Beauty, I managed to do so without knowing this twist of casting. And it didn’t really occur to me as being A Thing while I watched the play for quite some time because, y’know, I was too busy enjoying the show.

Apparently Conservative MP Peter Bone is outraged at this gender role reversal, which he likens to being a bad April Fool’s Joke. Such is Mr Bone’s ire that he’s managed to whip up a storm of headlines and controversy in the national newspapers… generating a wealth of publicity for the Bristol Old Vic that was presumably far outside their marketing budget anyway. So good on him. 

From the Telegraph website

The only thing that depresses me about Mr Bone’s upset is that he’s not alone. In a poll on the Telegraph website, 75% of respondents agreed that they wouldn’t want to watch a gender-flipped pantomime (why not?). And there were several quotes from upset parents (who don’t seem to have yet even seen Sleeping Beauty) saying that their daughters would be devastated as they would look forward to seeing a fairy tale princess in her big white dress. Seriously? Really? This depresses me more than anything. Come on, girls, it's time to put some trousers on and play in the mud!

But when it comes to a Sally Cookson production we should know by now to expect the unexpected. Her previous Christmas shows for Bristol Old Vic include the absolutely staggering Peter Pan and the so-popular-it-ran-for-two-years Swallows and Amazons, as well as the open-air spectacular Treasure Island. She’s a director celebrated for her creativity, imagination and lack of fear when it comes to pushing the boundaries.

Photo: Steve Tanner
So she adds her twist to Sleeping Beauty by melding together the titular fairy tale with the lesser known story The Leaves That Hung But Never Grew. The result is a little awkward, and given Cookson’s past triumphs feels a bit confused and disappointing. 

In the first half, we follow Prince Percy (David Emmings) who is cursed by wicked Sylvia (Stu Goodwin) to prick his finger before his 16th birthday and sleep until he is woken by a kiss: the classic story of Sleeping Beauty. Backed up by a wonderful chorus of fairy grannies, or wise old women as the programme calls them, Sleeping Beauty in the first half takes on the tone of a Greek tragedy merged with an enjoyably silly geriatric sitcom and it works wonderfully.

For the second half, we meet intrepid explorer Deilen (Kezrena James) who is on a quest to fix her broken heart by finding the leaves that hung but never grew. Her story intertwines with Percy’s and the two set off on a series of adventures together, but the melding of the stories is not quite as successful as it should have been. If it was not for the fantastic force of theatrical pantomime dame-dom from Stu Goodwin as the multi-faceted evil Sylvia, it would be hard to maintain a consistent thread between the two halves.

The key issue with this production of Sleeping Beauty is that is lacks a clear main character. It’s neither Percy nor Deilen, and it’s sadly not Sylvia either. Meaning the audience is left a little uncertain about who to root for and quite where we’re going. But thank goodness for Stu Goodwin - who created a pantomime villain so wicked and so wonderful that I hope she gets her own spin-off show on the telly.

Photo: Steve Tanner
The music, directed by Benji Bowers, was as fantastic as you would expect, with a live trio on the corner of the stage who opened each half of the evening with a medley of modern classics, such as Living’ On A Prayer merging with Like A Prayer. And the costumes created by Katie Sykes were also fabulous - especially for the chorus of wise old women who later regenerate as a flock of sheep. But again, the thread of almost all of the characters in the first half wearing golfing socks petered out by the second half, somewhat confirming the feeling that we were seeing two entirely different plays.

Sleeping Beauty is, of course, a very fun show from Sally Cookson and Bristol Old Vic, and it is sure to delight all the families who go to see it this Christmas. But in light of the excellence of Peter Pan and Swallows and Amazons, it’s just not quite up there for me as a new modern classic. But bravo for shaking up the tired old idea of just who a fairytale princess can be!


Sleeping Beauty is performed until January 17. For more information and to book tickets, please click here.

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