Mike Kenny is prodigiously prolific as a writer/adaptor of children’s plays. Three major theatres in the old West Riding alone are staging his versions of children’s classics this Christmas. The regular Courtyard Theatre collaboration with director Gail McIntyre and designer Barney George is as good a place as any to try to explain his success. Not that I’m sure that I can.
The style is basically narrative – much of the story is told rather than enacted, but the narrators are themselves characters, heavily involved in the action. The trick is worked in Sleeping Beauty by five Nannas who manage simultaneously to be a cosily protective unit and contain within their ranks the evil fairy who causes all the trouble, the good fairy who helps to straighten it out and actors to take on the parts of assorted royals. Needless to say, Grandma’s Army is much more proactive in such things as sorting out a prince than are the fairies in Perrault or Grimm.
Another element is making the mundane magical. At first the nannas are nice, but a bit silly, everything is grounded in a sentimental version of the everyday, and the magic slides up on an unsuspecting audience. It’s something to do with the songs, Oliver Birch’s catchy tunes extremely well performed with a (totally false) air of improvisation: drumkit on pram, instruments stacked at the side of the stage. The designs do equally as much to draw us in: an essentially bare traverse stage (with elegant bobbin-shaped lanterns) gradually fills with party streamers, hanging briars, spinning wheel or magic bag.
Most important of all is the control of tone in script and direction: a daft game of Musical Statues with the audience is quietened by the misty menace of Briar Rose’s potentially fatal visit to the tower. Having said all that, Sleeping Beauty could (and probably will) be better. It takes a little too long to establish itself and indulges the plot-slowing sillinesses a little too much (great fun, though – did ever a troupe of grandmas lose a baby so often?).
The excellent cast of five is full of capable actor/musicians. Oliver Birch combines a would-be dignified king with one of the more normal Nannas and multi-instrumentalist/musical director. Similarly versatile is Sarah Vezmar, chief narrator, Bad Nanna’s fiercest antagonist and animated percussionist. Celia Adams makes sense of Bad Nanna Sandra: if you just love a party and get into a really bad temper if you’re not invited, it’s perfectly natural to harbour a grudge for 115 years! Natasha Magigi, cast as Briar Rose (and her mother) totally against all stereotypes, has a winning energy and naturalness and Simon Kerrigan’s straight-faced clowning fits a half-witted prince as well as the physical comedy of a near-wordless Noo Noo Nanna.
Sleeping Beauty runs at the West Yorkshire Playhouse until 19 January 2013. For further information visit www.wyp.org.uk