Hull Truck’s Christmas show is a box of sweets. Candy swirls, dolly mixtures, sticks of rock and twinkling sherbets circle the stage – appropriately given the average performer age must be about twelve. Perhaps it was the excess sugar but despite the kaleidoscopic smorgasbord I wasn’t transported. Mingling the cast among the audience before the show and during the interval dissipated rather than excited a bubbling over of energy. Maybe the fairytale wasn’t deconstructed enough and had become too normal? As a devotee of Kenny’s writing for young people, and a passionate supporter of initiating our young into the most excellent live theatre we can make, I am not convinced Babych’s Sleeping Beauty has yet reached full maturity.
Not for want of trying. The ensemble – including the community ensemble – are note perfect and well drilled. The actors all play a dizzying array of instruments, and sing and even dance pretty well too. The costumes (Sian Thomas) lighting and set (Ciaran Bagnall) are simply stunning and a medaille d’or is the very least the ‘yarny army’ deserve for their knitting and crochet creations turning a bed into a boudoir and then a briar hedge. However, the vital ingredient that transforms a professional, well turned out production into pure fairytale magic remains frustratingly elusive.
There is much to commend. Kenny’s alternative view of the fairy tale allows Princess Briar Rose (Betts) to participate in her own story, not spend it asleep waiting for rescue. Encouragingly she gets to travel the world before deciding whether she fancies the prince enough to live happily ever after. Her tale is told by the ‘Nannas’ who look after and sometimes jeopardise her life. Remaining relaxed about characterisation, the fourth wall and unities of time and space means the troupe can morph from protector to protectee and back without losing us – at one point Betts as Nanna Janine explains she can’t become the prince because she’s already playing the princess. The brilliant Laurie Jamieson is a messenger frog (French of course), a Harpo Marx-esque Nanna Noonoo who softens the curse with a knitted scarf, and finally a Noel Coward singing, prat-falling, karate kicking, sword wielding but ultimately successful prince. A pleasure to experience such precision versatility.
As is right for a Christmas show, community conquers. Loneliness is decried by Bad Nanna Sandra (Goode) whose backlash came because she was ‘forgotten’ and ‘left out’. Briar Rose is ‘lonely’ (‘is there anybody out there?’), held prisoner in the attempt to keep her alive. When the thread of her life is threatened with being cut, the King’s reaction is to stop all threads. Spinning must die out, for what are the clothes of ordinary families ‘against the life of my daughter?’ The outcome from this bad (selfish/unilateral) decision is resolved finally in a collective effort. Even the dead who have battled the hedge previously try to help (‘you’re never alone – there are more dead than alive, join us!’).
Musically too, the underscore (James Frewer Musical Director) allows the melodic thread to fray and scatter but recombine into numbers and ensemble pieces that draw on all the instrumental and vocal skills of the cast. It was a pleasure to experience the different percussive techniques of Jamieson, Shuttleworth and Hamer (former Chumbwamba drummer).
There are some lovely individual performances. Nanny Worrywart (Louise Shuttleworth) carries us through audience participation (musical statues!) with aplomb, persuading even the reluctant among us to swear on ‘Nanna’s honour’. Betts ensures that Briar Rose is athletic and questioning and decisive. Extravagant camp and misunderstood Nanny Sandra does a good Blofeld, going so far as to head-but his unfortunate pet in his petulance.
Given the quality of its ingredients, as timings tighten, a bit of seasonal theatrical magic is bound to ripen.