Review: Rapunzel (Theatre Royal Stratford East)

Theatre Royal Stratford East’s pantomime stars regular Michael Bertenshaw

Theatre Royal Stratford East’s pantomime can without doubt be counted as one of the capital’s yearly delights – it’s usually up there with the likes of the Lyric Hammersmith's and Hackney Empire’s quirky, off beat festive offerings.

But this year, though the theatre’s regular writing duo Trish Cooke and composer Robert Hyman have returned, it all feels a little disappointing. Perhaps it’s the slightly lame gags for the adults – about three, which are delivered in quick succession by Gary Wood’s posh eagle Egor – or maybe it’s the surprising lack of local politics – usually this panto happily spits barbs at political machinations in the real world. It may also be the slightly tricksy story of Rapunzel, which isn’t an obvious pantomime, and has been modified to blend with Goldilocks and the Three Bears to make up for its flimsy storyline.

Rapunzel begins with Rapunzel, played with a lovely poise by Joanne Sandi, happily stuck in her attic, kept there by the nefarious Witch Maddy, who is pretending to be Rapunzel’s big-hearted mother. She shouldn’t leave her room, says Maddy, because there are all sorts of awful things in the forest down below. Rapunzel, who doesn’t know any different, agrees.

Meanwhile, the forest and its inhabitants, including Baby Bear and his parents, are at the whim of the decrepit crone who is brewing a potion to make herself young again: young enough to remember all her great, death-inducing spells. The potion is made up of Rapunzel’s hair, because she ingested the magical Rapunzel flower when she was a baby. On the right night, and with the help of the strands of the final golden hair in the forest, Witch Maddy will be at the peak of her powers once more. Something to be avoided at all costs.

Stratford East regular Michael Bertenshaw is an absolute treat as Witch Maddy, grinning and gurning his way through the piece, spurred by his characteristic comic timing and easy audience rapport. Julie Yammanee’s Goldilocks – intent on saving Rapunzel from her locked tower – is brimming with bolshy attitude and thirst for adventure. The supporting cast, who all double up as several characters, work exceptionally hard and are very funny. Props must go to Juliet Okotie for her enjoyable Jamaican Mrs Bear and dunder-headed evil assistant Lizzie.

William Fricker’s designs are beguilingly beautiful, with wonderfully clashing African patterns on all the costumes and Witch Maddy’s cluttered, chemistry set-style workshop one of the several simple but effective sets. This Rapunzel does look amazing.

Alas, it is just not quite enough to make it into one of the best pantos in London this year. It’s all very enjoyable, but it gets a little predictable. And though there are a strong range of songs – from grime to ska and full-blown pop – but they just aren’t that funny, or that hummable. Even the usually raucous audience interaction scenes were unsatisfactory.

There’s real heart here and it’s commendable that the central message of the show is about working together, not to mention having the young lady Goldilocks reworked to become Rapunzel’s saviour, rather than a boring prince. But essentially, it's a panto that lacks bite – something that's usually on proud display in this theatre at this time of the year.

Rapunzel runs at Theatre Royal Stratford East until 13 January.

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