Eastbourne panto - "bright, beautiful and simply brilliant"


Karen Mann, Nicholas Pound and Ensemble - Sleeping Beauty 2021
Karen Mann, Nicholas Pound and Ensemble - Sleeping Beauty 2021

Sleeping Beauty, Devonshire Park Theatre, Eastbourne, Dec 10-Jan 9.

Pantomime is back, and it is as if we’d never been away. The Devonshire Park Theatre – dark last Christmas in our very darkest pandemic days – now awakes once more, to a fabulous Sleeping Beauty. Radiance and reassurance in equal measure.

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In the great pantomimes, we aspire to our dreams, confront our fears, achieve our ambitions. We embrace heroism, and revel in romance. The very story of this Sleeping Beauty is the essence of Love Conquers All – even the Wretched Virus….

In the foyer, a sense of excitement that even respectful face-masks couldn’t quite disguise. Three-generation families in the stalls, full of anticipation. And on stage, one of the show’s first musical numbers announces – The Boys Are Back In Town. For boys, of course, read girls too, and everyone else from princesses to dames, and princes to jesters.

As Chester the Jester, Tucker instantly establishes that familiar, easy command and rapport with the audience. There are, of course, the standard political jokes, plus plenty of local references: the Polegate roadworks and the fast-fibre pavement chaos don’t escape the Tucker cutting edge. It is all assuredly back to normal.

Tucker’s perennial partner-in-panto Martyn Knight, never knowingly under-dressed, is a glorious Nurse Nellie. Broad in the beam or broad in humour, Martyn could kill with a flash of the false eyelashes: he is quite simply the definitive Dame.

Good and evil fairies? Of course. The good guys have to win, for sure – but Carli Norris, magnificently malevolent as the wicked Carabosse, all but steals the show – until her late conversion to sweetness and light. Opposite her, Karen Mann is an endearing and just slightly batty Fairy Fortywinks.

Nicholas Pound – probably best known as the definitive Old Deuteronomy in Lloyd Webber’s Cats – is a genial and avuncular King Clarence with a fine sonorous voice.

Becky Hoyle's Princess Aurora is captivating: no soppy helpless heroine but a petite assertive figure with a voice of liquid gold. Playing the handsome prince can be the easiest role in panto, but Ashley Emerson goes well beyond the cliché. With a lovely lyrical tenor voice, Ashley’s Prince Valiant is a suave and assured stage presence, shrugging off the usual Tucker banter – “ooh, a proper actor!” - and finally stepping up to fight dragons in pursuit of his Princess.

Ah yes, dragons. Easy on the spoilers here – but the monstrous apparition, emerging from the darkest depths of the Forest to a thunderous Carl Orff soundtrack, is absolutely jaw-dropping. Possibly the best piece of stagecraft in Chris Jordan’s twenty years of Devonshire pantomimes.

Indeed, every technical dimension is covered brilliantly: a feast for eyes and ears. From those Gothic novel forests to the creasingly funny Castle Kitchen slapstick, everything works. Oh, and look out at the start of Act Two for the largest bouncy castle in Britain – only this one isn’t a castle but a billowing dreamland which, a little precariously, balances silly slapstick with romantic ballad: Roy Orbison’s In Dreams is just one number in a truly eclectic playlist.

Carl Greenwood’s five-piece band captures all the moods, from brisk and breezy to sweetly romantic to thunderous.

Covid constraints mean no juvenile ensemble this year, and they are missed, especially in the bigger scenes. But the six adult dancers are just superb: delivering routine with energy and precision, and nicely engaged in the acting scenes. Lovely, too, to see Eastbourne’s own Mia Longman in the ensemble – a dozen or so years on from her debut on that stage with Young EODS! A terrific Finale Act One, set deep in the forest, has fabulous ferocity with a touch of Maurice Sendak. Great credit to choreographer Darragh O’Leary.

Huge sets, with no detail spared, look magnificent, and some fairly long front-cloth scenes are a small price to pay for the complex scene changes. Too many credits to list on the technical team: you’ll need to grab the excellent souvenir programme. And the costumes – wow! From Dame Nellie’s incredible multi-layered (almost) strip sequence to the glittering finale, the show just dazzles.

Bright, beautiful and simply brilliant. This is not just panto: it is Devonshire Park pantomime, and it is five-star entertainment.