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Sleeping Beauty at Eden Court: Highland panto thrives on mishaps as Imagine Theatre conjures seasonal surprises aplenty


By Hector MacKenzie



Pantomime Dame Steven Wren kept on his toes as Nurse Netty during Sleeping Beauty. Picture: Ewen Weatherspoon
Pantomime Dame Steven Wren kept on his toes as Nurse Netty during Sleeping Beauty. Picture: Ewen Weatherspoon

THERE was a moment during Friday night's production of Sleeping Beauty at Eden Court where show director and Dame, Steven Wren, lost his footing – quite literally – during a dance number.

Had he been performing on another seasonal TV favourite doing the Saturday night rounds at the moment, it would doubtless have been declared a "dance disaster, darling!" by another larger-than-life hoofer with a pantomime baddie sideline.

But it's part of the magic of panto that the seasoned pro was able to turn the minor mishap – delightfully not the only one in the performance ­— into a show highlight, feeding off the audience and milking it for all it was worth. I'm sure even Craig Revel Horwood would have appreciated the swift-witted showbiz savvy as much as the audience did.

Steven Wren pipes up again during the show. Picture: Ewen Weatherspoon
Steven Wren pipes up again during the show. Picture: Ewen Weatherspoon

"Maybe I should study the choreography notes" quipped Wren as the show careered on at breakneck speed to the next scene, the ice now well and truly broken. Choreographer Claire Darcy has masterminded slick moves aplenty on a number of snappy, toe-tapping song and dance numbers beautifully executed by cast and junior ensemble alike.

No major spoilers here but listen out for excerpts inspired by everyone from Cher, The Proclaimers and The Weather Girls to Michael Jackson, Elton John and the Bay City Rollers. A medley from one of the above in particular got an instant and massive reaction from the audience – have a guess, or get along yourself and find out which! It certainly reveals something about the broad demographic with attendees on the night in question ranging in age from four to (at least) 80. (I know this not only from the evidence of my own eyes but the second-half birthday shout outs).

Ross Allan stretches himself in the role of Hilarious Hector and delivers one of the show's highlights. Picture: Ewen Weatherspoon
Ross Allan stretches himself in the role of Hilarious Hector and delivers one of the show's highlights. Picture: Ewen Weatherspoon

The challenge of the panto producer is to produce a pacey, family-friendly affair that keeps the young ones on the edge of their seats with suspense and slapstick and their more seasoned companions supplied with an endless supply of quick-fire gags and entertaining local references. Caley Thistle, Ross County and Clachnadcuddin all get a look in. As do The Real Housewives of Dingwall. And, of course, where would a panto be without numerous clunky references to its sponsors? Delightfully done as ever. And there are more one-liners than you could shake a very large stick at, many – as you'd expect – of Christmas cracker standard.

More comic capers led by Steven Wren and Ross Allan in Sleeping Beauty. Picture: Ewen Weatherspoon
More comic capers led by Steven Wren and Ross Allan in Sleeping Beauty. Picture: Ewen Weatherspoon

Imagine Theatre's dynamic duo Wren, as Nurse Netty, and Ross Allan as Hilarious Hector, her son, are perfect foils for one another, able to ad lib when the spirit moves them (or the occasional line is forgotten). Tia Bobbi Henry in the Princess Beauty title role more than holds her own in a stereotype challenging part that helps bring the genre into the 21st century. And while Ben McGarvey as love interest Prince Callum of Culloden undoubtedly cuts a dash, it's debatable as to who is actually handiest with the sword when push comes to shove. Callum could undoubtedly understudy for Barbie's Ken should the need arise...

Tia Bobbi Henry in the title role of Princess Beauty. Picture: Ewen Weatherspoon
Tia Bobbi Henry in the title role of Princess Beauty. Picture: Ewen Weatherspoon

Colin McGregor hams it up as King Cuthbert and gets ample opportunity to use his voice to good effect in some set piece songs. Laura Blair keeps the rhyming banter coming thick and fast as Fairy Flutterby and Nicola Auld pushes all the right buttons in baddie mode as Carabosse. "You're still on the boos", she quips as the audience goes into full-on panto mode.

Ben McGarvey (Prince Callum of Culloden), Steven Wren (Nurse Netty) and Ross Allan (Hilarious Hector) with spooky friend in the Forest of Fortrose during Imagine Theatre's production of Sleeping Beauty at Eden Court. Picture: Ewen Weatherspoon
Ben McGarvey (Prince Callum of Culloden), Steven Wren (Nurse Netty) and Ross Allan (Hilarious Hector) with spooky friend in the Forest of Fortrose during Imagine Theatre's production of Sleeping Beauty at Eden Court. Picture: Ewen Weatherspoon

The small, tight band, headed up by musical director Will Marshall on keys with Sam Lumsden (drums), Craig MacFadyen (bass) and Ade McKenna (guitar), propels the show forward, bolstering the all-important song and dance set-pieces along the way.

The sets – including the Forest of Fortrose – form the ideal backdrop for the fun and games. And sticking to the no spoiler pledge, I'll simply tip my hat to one of the major props used towards the finale. Slay indeed.

This is a production that you can see cast and crew growing into and very possibly evolving as the run continues, fine-tuning along the way in response to audience reaction. If it's a show of two halves, don't, whatever you do, miss Ross Allan's first half recap at the beginning of Act 2. If you ever doubted his gift of the gab, you won't after that. Take a bow, sir.

What is a panto without a romantic interlude or two? Picture: Ewen Weatherspoon
What is a panto without a romantic interlude or two? Picture: Ewen Weatherspoon

Pantos thrive on genuine surprises and there are a few. If you hear the Mission Impossible theme tune starting up at any point, you may find out more about one of them...

I can almost guarantee that whoever you are, you won't drop off during Sleeping Beauty, you'll snigger at a cheesy gag you've not encountered before and hear at least one song that you absolutely love. For a couple of hours, you will be right royally entertained.

There's no shortage of snappy song and dance set pieces. Picture: Ewen Weatherspoon
There's no shortage of snappy song and dance set pieces. Picture: Ewen Weatherspoon

And, who knows, you might even find yourself holding a lucky ticket that would make any theatre-goer's Christmas wishes come true...

Sleeping Beauty is at Eden Court until January 7, 2024. For tickets, see eden-court.co.uk


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