First published in The Times, Wednesday December 8 2021
A palpable sense of excitement is in the air as the legendary King’s pantomime returns following a two-year absence. Yet this production of Sleeping Beauty also comes with a bittersweet edge. A notable absence from the cast list is Andy Gray – for 20 years one of the stars of the show alongside Allan Stewart and Grant Stott – who died earlier this year.
The actor’s absence is felt throughout, most poignantly during set pieces such as Queen May’s (Stewart) voyage out across the stalls on a flying scooter, which seems a little lonely without Gray, the comic sidekick, riding pillion. It is testament to how embedded this institution is with its community that a heartfelt second-half tribute to the performer brings the audience to its feet.
The show must go on, and for sheer entertainment value, relentless slapstick and jaw-dropping theatrics, this one’s hard to beat. Written by Alan McHugh, with additional material courtesy of Stewart and Stott, the script is a Greatest Hits package of pantomime stock sequences, many of them familiar to this crowd. There are ripples of anticipation when Stewart wheels on the trolley of oversized chocolate bars for a monologue whose every other word is the name of a well-known brand of confectionary, and again when he and Stott and Jordan Young’s Muddles the Jester embark on a tongue-twisting back-and-forth about a pair of poisonous pythons in a hissing pit in Prestonpans.
If there’s a flaw, it’s that this year’s production more than ever relegates plot to the margins. “Here at the King’s we don’t let the story get in the way of a good joke,” Young says, acknowledging just how rapidly the fairy tale element has been dispensed with – curses, spindles, slumbering princess and all. Indeed, the human performers are almost eclipsed at one point by a giant hydraulic vampire bat that looms out over the audience.
In the end it’s the clown who defeats the baddie and gets the girl, which is an innovation of which King Andy would surely have approved. The rubber-faced Young has been a good addition to this team in recent years, enjoying a strong chemistry with Stewart’s loveable Dame and Stott’s commanding villain(ness). Gray will be missed, but as the King’s moves into a new era, with an ambitious renovation planned for next year, the panto with which he was associated for so long is in rude health.
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