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Review: Sleeping Beauty (Richmond Theatre)

Maureen Lipman returns to pantomime with an excellent Wicked Fairy in Richmond's annual Christmas offering

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Celebrity panto appearances tend to fall into one of three camps: the disaster that no amount of enthusiastic high-kicking from the chorus can disguise; the Steady Eddie (or Edwina) whose lacklustre performance steals vital stage time from the more vibrant unknowns; or the triumph you can't wait to see make another entrance. I've watched all three, and Maureen Lipman is the latter.

Returning to panto after nearly 12 years, she plays Carabosse, the evil fairy that sends Sleeping Beauty into her slumber. A potent mixture of gleeful wickedness and adolescent petulance (there is plenty of eye-rolling and dramatic sighing) she invites resounding boos with every sneer and swish of her cape.

And she's not alone in her well-pitched performance. Matt Rixon is spot on as this year's dame, Nursie; Lauren Hood is a sweet but not sickly Beauty; and Dan Partridge as the Prince eschews the earnest thigh slapping one usually sees from panto heroes in favour of a refreshing blend of dashing and comic.

The whole cast are good singers, too, particularly the romantic leads, who make easy work of their slushy pop duets (James Arthur and Ed Sheeran tracks both feature). The rest of the score, it should be said, steers blissfully clear of too many current chart-toppers, plumping instead for enduring classics like "The Time Warp". Katherine Iles's varied choreography, meanwhile, incorporates sequences of hip hop and salsa, and the small adult chorus are precise, animated and, at times, hilarious – their transformation into grooving pensioners was a particular crowd favourite.

Directing the show is CBeebies presenter Chris Jarvis, who also stars for the third year in a row, this time as Chester, the court jester and Beauty's adopted brother. Fast becoming a Richmond panto institution, his experience shows both on and off the stage. As Chester he is the seasoned pro, skewering the worst gags, whipping up the audience and, last night, dealing admirably with one young audience volunteer who wouldn't stop star jumping. Meanwhile, his directorial influence brings playful touches (Carabosse's dragon chariot beeps when it reverses) and plenty of obligatory slapstick. Conspicuous by its absence, however, is a custard pie scene – the gloriously messy element most children love. But a ridiculous alternative rendition of "The Twelve Days of Christmas" (where 'a partridge in a pear tree' becomes ‘a bra that was made to fit three') complete with silly props, water guns and toilet rolls pelting the audience, almost makes up for it.

Eric Potts's script isn't the funniest I've heard, nor are its rhymes the most inventive on the block, but it has plenty of contemporary references and local gags to keep the adults happy. M&S adverts, Pokemon Go, and Richmond's latest set of roadworks are some of the butts of this year's jokes. Theresa May also makes an appearance as a dinner party guest shrieking ‘breadsticks means breadsticks'.

There are a few more flaws, however. Some of the singing is drowned out by ropey sound levels, I thought I spied the dancers miming (although I could be wrong), and there are some dips in energy, most notably during a slow and clumsily choreographed fight between Carabosse and oversized versions of Beauty's childhood toys. But this show still has more than enough panto magic to make it well worth a watch.

Sleeping Beauty runs at Richmond Theatre until 8 January.

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