Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Friday 23rd November, 2018
No matter how beautiful you are, there’s no danger of dozing off during this year’s festive offering at the Belgrade. As usual, it’s written and directed by the mighty Iain Lauchlan, who also appears as amiable dame, Nanny Fanny McWheeze, this is a cavalcade of fun, showing off Lauchlan’s mastery of the form, his skills as a performer, and crucially, his innovations. For example, the traditional slosh scene (icing a cake) is set-up brilliantly, involving an Alexa-type device (a Scottish version named Morag!) who reels off the instructions of how to play the sport curling, which the cast mistake for cake-decorating tips. Add to the mix, a hapless member of the audience who is game for a laugh, and this extended slapstick scene builds superbly. Genius!
Also returning is Lauchlan’s regular stage partner, the hilarious Craig Hollingsworth. This year he’s Muddles the Jester, and he’s as irritable as Nanny Fanny is amiable. Hollingsworth’s short temper and long-suffering stance are the perfect foil for Lauchlan’s kindnesses, and also for the more saccharine elements of the story. If this partnership ever splits, the Belgrade will probably crumble.
In the title role, Melissa Brown-Taylor is a plucky Princess Belle, while Joanna Thorne’s Prince Valiant is leggy and heroic as a principal boy should be; (it seems contemporary theatre is catching up with the gender-swapping that has been a staple of pantomime all along!). Declan Wilson is a cuddly King Hugo, with Vicky Field making an impression as his ill-tempered, ill-fated Queen. Field soon reappears as Grunge, sidekick to the evil fairy in an enjoyable portrayal. Anna Mitcham’s good fairy Azurial is, in her own words, ‘perky’, assisted by a troupe of youngsters as her fairy assistants. But it is Laura Judge’s villainous Carabosse who almost steals the show. Bitterly melodramatic, Judge’s high-camp performance is a treat.
There is spectacle, of course: watch out for a dragon (it’d be hard to miss!) and a lively ensemble in beautiful story-book costumes by Terry Parsons. Jenny Phillips’s choreography gets its big moment in the Act Two opener. The original songs (by Lauchlan, Liz Kitchen and Steve Etherington) aren’t bad, each one serving its purpose and played by a tight combo under the able baton of Dan Griffin. There are well-worn routines given a new spin, and up-to-date topical references.
The overall feel is trad meets new, and like the Prince and Princess, it’s a perfect match.