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Sleeping Beauty (Susan Elkin reviews)

Sleeping Beauty
By Rufus Norris. From The Sleeping Beauty in the Woods by Charles Perrault.
society/company: Chichester Festival Theatre
performance date: 18 Dec 2018
venue: Chichester Festival Youth Theatre (Festival Theatre)
Francesca McBride and Izzy Richardson in Chichester Festival Youth Theatre’s SLEEPING BEAUTY. Photo: Helen Murray

There is something very special indeed about Chichester Festival Youth Theatre led by the extraordinary Dale Rooks and with 800 members from all over Sussex. For a start CFT is the only major theatre in the UK which hands its main stage to the Youth Theatre every Christmas and mounts a show with full Chichester production values. And the standards achieved are phenomenal.

Rooted in the original Perrault story and written by Rufus Norris, this Sleeping Beauty is dark, mysterious and magical – it sits in flavour somewhere between A Midsummer Night’s DreamDon Giovanni and The BFG. Director Lucy Betts, herself a former CFYT member works adeptly with a huge cast: 200 performers with alternating principals to maximise opportunites for all.

This story begins with a kind-ish fairy (Emily McAlpine – compelling) looking for a Prince to waken the princess she has put to sleep for a long time, in a now regretted fit of chagrin. There are flashbacks to explain with younger and older versions of Goody, the fairy. Her first attempt fails but she does better the second time. The second half takes the story in a different direction involving a baby-gobbling ogress (Megan Bewley – splendid) and other not-for-the-faint-hearted developments.

Along the way we get some fabulous music composed by Tom Brady and played on a high platform above the stage by a fine five-piece band led by MD, Colin Billing. Much of it is folksy and or witty and it’s all atmospheric. I particularly liked the Just Say No song. Performed by six exceptionally slick and funny palace guards of varying sizes, it could have come straight out of G&S.

Then there’s some immaculate chorus song and dance work with, for example, a team of slaves, a large group of forest animals and a human forest of green thorns. And there’s a lot of swinging on ropes on Simon Higlet’s spikey, disturbing, aboreal set. The base Perrault story was called The Sleeping Beauty in the Woods a concept which has clearly underpinned many of the design ideas.

We are, though, actually in a timeless place where characters speak modern English, often sounding quite sassy and sharp. Some – Fairy Goody, for instance – have a slight idiolect.

Hal Darling, whom I’ve seen at Chichester several times before is totally natural and convincing as a worried king who can’t stand up to his appalling wife (Molly Berry – good). They’re a couple we’ve all met. Not for the first time, I hope Darling has an agent and/or is going onto drama school. His talent deserves to be seen much more of.

George Waller is strong as the prince who is so terrified by the idea of waking a sleeping princess that he runs away in alarm and Joe Russell is fun as the macho prince who initially says “I don’t like girls” (suggesting to me and most of the audience, I expect, that this play was going to morph into a 2018 story) before deciding that perhaps he’d have a look and then waking the princess under the Fairy’s supervision. Soon they’ve got a couple of babies … As his mother says, on her son’s return with his family: “You’ve been a long time hunting.”

Izzy Richardson plays a fine and feisty princess, rebelling against her over protective parents like any modern teenager and then becoming a very worried (with good cause) mother.

All in all this is a very original and highly enjoyable show – and a wonderful credit to CFTY and everyone involved with it.

First published by Sardines:

Author information
Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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