In recent years, the Marlowe Theatre has built up a reputation for staging some of the country's best and most inventive pantomimes, and The Sleeping Beauty continues that tradition.
Written and directed by Paul Hendy (who is also behind a handful of other pantos this year), this year's show once again boasts a cast drawn from a cross-section of celebrity – from singer and actress Toyah Wilcox to Pop Idol graduate Gareth Gates, CBeebies star Katrina Bryan and musical actress Faye Brookes. It's a decent mix of well-known names and faces that will appeal to a wide audience.
And – unlike celebrity casts in some other pantomimes – this crew can actually do the job. Wilcox is a long-standing resident of Pantoville who clearly knows what she's doing, while Gates doesn't have to do an awful lot other than sing in tune and look like Gareth Gates, both of which he does admirably.
Having only seen her previously on Nina and the Neurons on CBeebies and in an Irn Bru advertisement, I was pleasantly surprised by Bryan's sweet singing voice and strong comic timing. It would have been nice to see more of her. However. while the celebs were good, for the second year in a row, the standout was Ben Roddy. This time he's playing Nurse Nellie and evidently enjoying making Gates feel as uncomfortable as possible. He brazenly stole every scene he touched.
The band, led by Chris Wong were rocking and the combination of songs used is more adventurous than in other pantos. Sure, there's Gangnam Style and a bit of One Direction, but Alice Cooper, "Seasons of love" from Rent and even Metallica make an appearance too. Unfortunately, it's during the songs that cracks appear. The audio mix is all wrong, with vocals being distorted or singers simply being drowned out by the music. It's a shame, as the rest of the show is so polished.
The impeccable attention to detail is evident during some superb comic set pieces. The first being a scene with innumerable pop group puns as characters pull LP sleeves out of a barrow; the second is an incredible bathroom-based sketch with a special set, involving Nurse Nellie, Jangles (Lloyd Hollet) and jets of water bursting forth from a ridiculous amount of places. It's the kind of scene where every slip and slide looks accidental, but is actually the result of pinpoint choreography and excellent comedic acting.
This Sleeping Beauty doesn't quite have the zip of last year's show and maybe needs another week before it truly begins to sparkle, but it's still one of the best pantos in the country this year and well worth the travel for any panto fans outside of Kent.