Sleeping Beauty at The Hexagon, Reading until Sunday, January 2
THE HEXAGON has landed the pick of the celeb crop for its pantomime this year in the form of TV’s Mr Tumble himself, Justin Fletcher, in only his second live panto. Even George, now aged eight and long a graduate of CBeebies, was impressed enough to earmark this panto as the one he wanted to see.
In a production created by the team behind hit CBeebies show The Tweenies (also starring Fletcher as the orange-skinned Jake), Fletcher lit up the stage whenever he appeared as ebullient joker and inventor Josh the Jester, with a great sense of slapstick and comic timing far beyond that normally demonstrated after a panto’s normal fortnight of rehearsal.
But although clearly the real star, Fletcher (the son of Hungerford composer Guy Fletcher) was not the only strong point of this year’s Hexagon pantomime. Proudly proclaiming Reading’s long history of panto in the programme - the town’s first was Robinson Crusoe, in the Friar Street Theatre in 1789 - Sleeping Beauty featured lush sets, fabulous costumes, a lively dark light scene, and an impressively fearsome if underused dragon.
Also strong was the supporting cast, including the legendary Jane Tucker from Rainbow - my own childhood hero - timeless as Azuriel, the good fairy, and well worthy of a mention, as she said to me after the show “the fairy never gets mentioned in reviews”. Then there was Leah Bracknell (formerly Emmerdale’s Zoe Tate), unrecognisable in a purple fright wig as the evil Carabosse, and Jolyon Dixon, an excellent sidekick to Fletcher as the panto’s dame, Nanny Nora.
Imagine Theatre did away with a lot of the current chart hits (although there was a ‘70s disco scene) and reference to current television shows that often pepper modern pantomimes but may go over the heads of the younger children, concentrating on the slapstick comedy, song, dance and audience participation that appeals to all ages. That’s not to say that this is a production aimed at pre-schoolers - it was great fun for all present, secretly even a too-cool eight-year-old who refused to join in any of the clapping.
The only pity is that as The Corn Exchange in Newbury is also presenting Sleeping Beauty, it’ll take a hardened panto fan to make it to both productions this year. But for many wanting to take their children to their first Christmas show, the popular draw of the delightful Fletcher will be hard to resist, and they have every right to be extremely satisfied with their choice.
- First published in Newbury Weekly News on December 16, 2010