For his final production as artistic director of the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Alan Ayckbourn has chosen, typically, to surprise everyone. Awaking Beauty is a bizarre concoction, quite possibly with a limited shelf-life in terms of future stagings, but, in Sir Alan’s terrific production, a triumphant climax to 36 years in charge.
This re-working of the story of the Sleeping Beauty begins with Verity Quade’s beautifully enunciated narration over wittily mimed action; all is as it should be, the Prince and Princess are everything we expect and look perfect in Michael Holt’s so far traditional costumes. Things begin to slide when the wicked sorceress Carabosse falls for the Prince. Future developments, with the love/lust triangle, the move to the city, the confrontation between romance and reality, are anything but predictable. Satire on contemporary life surfaces, then fades into Hollywood-style let’s-be-happy-with-what-we-got romantic realism.
The oddest – and most wonderful – thing about Awaking Beauty is that it carries resonances of so much else, yet is totally original. The songs (music by Denis King) move through pastiche to achieve their own identity, but Singin’ in the Rain’s “Moses Supposes” lies somewhere behind Miss Chasum’s hysterical elocution song, the hairdressing ensemble recalls Danny Kaye\'s camply elegant \"Anatole of Paris\" in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, and the final delightful duet, “I’ll Settle for You”, draws on a long tradition of “I’ll string along with you until the real thing comes along” songs.
Technical experiment is, of course, the hallmark of much of Ayckbourn’s work. Here the experiments are mostly aural. The instrumental accompaniment is limited to piano, with a sextet of narrators adding wordless backing, vocal choruses, sound effects and eccentric supporting roles. Under the guidance of MD Jonathan Williams, Verity Quade, Annalene Beechey, Helen French, Matthew White, Ian McLarnon and Jon-Paul Hevey form a superb team, capable of switching nonchalantly from doo-wop to animal impressions to the noise of rush-hour traffic.
Not that the principals are overshadowed. Duncan Patrick’s absurdly chivalrous Prince and Alice Fearn’s sweetly petulant Princess find true love in adversity and add to the roster of excellent voices. As Carabosse Anna Francolini runs the gamut of laughs from menacing cackle to tinkling chime and undergoes her many transformations with wide-eyed surprise, while Ben Fox’s Pigcutter proves the fairy tale maxim that ugliness equals goodness, plus adding a touch of Bud Flanagan to the musical proceedings.