Awaking Beauty: World Premiere Reviews
Ayckbourn Bows Out With A Lusty Cracker (by Dominic Cavendish)
It's the end of the year, the end of an era. A wry, unorthodox and surprisingly lusty Christmas show, Awaking Beauty, is Sir Alan Ayckbourn's 72nd play - and his last as artistic director of the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough.
Next March, as he turns 70, he makes way for freelance director Chris Monks, and, although he will still write and direct, the hand-over brings the curtain down on a reign that has endured since 1972.
Back then, I was a two-year-old toddler. Altogether, Ayckbourn's tenure has outlasted that of six prime-ministers: a remarkable span of time to have stayed put and ploughed away at his noble art, And, while it has looked ever more necessary for Sir Alan to step aside, not least on account of his recent stroke, it must be said as he bows out that, with perhaps the exception of Shakespeare and the Globe, no other British playwright has forged such a dynamic and prolific relationship with one theatre. Hats off to him.
Age has not withered his capacity to innovate. Scarborough has been his laboratory, and here he brings a boldly experimental eye as well as a musical ear and an archly modern and adult sensibility to the evergreen tale of Sleeping Beauty.
After a swift, tongue-in-cheek recap of the story so far - delivered by a six-strong chorus of narrators, who haunt much of the subsequent action, often supplying a jaunty, scatting accompaniment - we're shown the kiss-struck moment when Princess Aurora (Alice Fearn) awakes. It's not happy-ever-after, though, because her wicked godmother Carabosse develops an instant pash for Duncan Patrick's dishy Prince and sets out to nab him for herself.
At first, she uses magic to transform herself into Aurora's likeness, then casts a spell on the Prince to blind him to her harridan hideousness. But there's no satisfaction there, so she must follow the couple into the real world, lay down her powers, and use guile and even charm rather than witchcraft to get her man. Or not
With its send-up style and spry, knowing lyrics (with potent music by Denis King), Awaking Beauty recalls Sondheim's fairy-tale amalgam Into the Woods. An early couplet sung by Aurora - "I was warned long ago by my nanny / It's simply uncanny" - doesn't so much take a leaf out of that show's book as the whole forest. And yet the show gains a pulse and poignancy of its own.
While Anna Francolini's cackling vamp (a dead-ringer for Morticia Addams) resorts to plastic surgery to banish wrinkles, the Prince and Princess fall on hard times in the city, have triplets and grow apart
Ayckbourn's themes are the ravages of age, and the toll taken by drab family responsibilities. It doesn't seem too fanciful to read the piece, finally, as a kind of teacup Tempest, with the playwright signalling, in Carabosse's dawning compassion, that sooner or later, you've got to let fresh blood have its day.
(Daily Telegraph, 19 December 2008)
Awaking Beauty (by Claire Brennan)
Alan Ayckbourn likes to surprise his audiences. The astringent farceur of suburban angst is concluding his 36-year career as artistic director of the SJT with a winter's (fairy) tale. Not that this is a children's show. Duncan Patrick and Alice Fearn's picture-book prince and princess are innocently, if explicitly, delighted in the physicality of their attraction, while the thwarted witch - magnificent Anna Francolini - dupes the prince into relieving her sexual frustrations with uninhibitedly raunchy relish.
That's not the only surprise. Having declared in 2005 that he had stopped writing musicals because he didn't enjoy them*, Ayckbourn invited composer Denis King to collaborate on a musical without musicians or instruments (except keyboard). The versatile voices of the ensemble create not only songs but the sounds of spiders weaving webs and a sleep-shattering chorus of baby triplets crying through the night.
What's not surprising, though, from the man whose theatre career has included stints as stage manager and actor as well as writer (of more than 70 plays) and director (of hundreds), is the sheer virtuosity of the show. Ayckbourn uses simple storytelling and stock characters to develop a narrative that is partly fantastical (with castles and caverns and magic broomsticks), part forensic analysis of the real-life threats to love. Fleeing the witch, the lovers escape to the rundown limits of a present-day city. In an inverse pantomime transformation, their crowns turn to paper and supermarket shelf-stacker turns out to be the only job an unqualified fairy-tale prince can find.
Comedy, here, skirts tragedy as poverty and parental exhaustion undermine the couple's affection. Just as the happy ending seems lost, Ayckbourn - bowing out on a high note - delivers it with a satisfyingly surprising twist.
(The Observer, 28 December 2008)
*There is no official record of any such announcement from Alan Ayckbourn and nothing has been found in the Ayckbourn Archive to collaborate this statement.
Awaking Beauty (by Simon Walker)
Sir Alan Ayckbourn’s final play as Stephen Joseph Theatre’s artistic director is a musically idiosyncratic piece. According to actor Ben Fox, who plays the “Pigcutter” in Awaking Beauty, the first fibres of inspiration to write a musical in which almost all the music is created by human voices came to Ayckbourn when he watched a Honda advert in which the sounds of a car are replicated by human voices. Hence the music in this playful sequel to Sleeping Beauty, written by Denis King, is for one piano and ten voices.
You would hardly expect that so seasoned a director as Ayckbourn would tackle such a piece without securing ten decent voices. All four characters and all six narrators have well polished oesophagi, and the singing is sufficiently controlled that no harmony line gets stampeded on by its peers. While Anna Francolini, as Princess Aurora’s cruel, witchcraft-wielding godmother, masters her vocal chords especially deftly among the main characters, the narrators’ singing shares a carefully constructed and maintained balance. This is important not only for ensuring that the harmonies are exhibited in their full richness and subtlety, but for the convincing use of their voices to create sound effects. This is done throughout, with the sternest test of their powers of oral contortion, a scene in which a despondent Aurora is comforted by a patchwork of wildlife, being negotiated admirably.
Although the fence between fairy tale fantasy and reality has been hopped so many times that it now incorporates a turnstile, you rarely feel that Ayckbourn’s overlap lacks imagination. He succeeds in evoking modern life jovially, for example through the character of a checkout girl who sits with her feet on the conveyor belt reading Heat and ignoring costumers, but also with deceptively biting satire, for instance through the extensive makeover that Carabosse undergoes in the attempt to make herself more palatable to the prince. The overblown number and cartoon choreography that accompany the latter help ensure that Awaking Beauty teases its own genre enough not to seem outdated.
However, although Awaking Beauty is a characteristically witty work, its humour harks back to an age of cheeky filth and garish, situational gags (as, of course, is appropriate to a musical). One aspect of the fairy tale archetype subjected to particular ridicule from a modern perspective is the tacit idea that love is an instantaneous phenomenon without sexual connotations. Similarly, widespread experience is comically and accurately evoked when Aurora and the prince suffer a largely sleepless night thanks to bawling offspring. Ostensibly, two viewpoints overlap in Awaking Beauty but, in reality, those of the fairy tale and twenty-first century are joined by that of the mid-twentieth century, whose style of humour is often replicated. A source of welcome complexity and jollity, the three way junction’s centrality does, however, suggest that the piece may not age well.
No doubt many actors would come across as awkward playing major roles in such a self-aware musical, but Ayckbourn has cast well. Francolini glistens as the short-tempered Carabosse, Fox is gently tragic as the downtrodden Pigcutter, Duncan Patrick is lovably facetious as the painfully English prince and Alice Fearn is a suitably naïve and melancholy Aurora. The less prominent roles performed by narrators are also convincingly delivered, with Matthew White’s confident sorceress the pick.
Ayckbourn’s future plays will debut at the SJT, but the end of his formal relationship with the theatre clearly merits a fine play in its own right. Awaking Beauty is well-judged for the purpose. As well as being funny and acute, it is a good natured and life-affirming work that perhaps embodies a little of his affection for the SJT and its audiences, and indeed theatre in general. Both King’s score and the tight delivery that it is given enhance the comic effect of Ayckbourn’s words, and it would be difficult to watch it without departing in a better mood than you arrived in.
(www.whatsonstage.com, 23 December 2008)
Awaking Beauty (by Ian Shuttleworth)
Alan Ayckbourn’s final play as artistic director of the Stephen Joseph Theatre (Lord knows how many he has written: the best the programme can manage is “over 70”) takes a traditional fairy tale as its jumping-off point and is presented during the season for family shows, but do not be misled. In the opening minutes, when the handsome prince finds his way to the sleeping Princess Aurora, it is not just his heart that suddenly stirs but also regions further south; later, after the wicked witch has had a makeover by a team of beauticians, she greets her reflection in the mirror with, “Well, fuck me!” This is not a show at which your little poppets’ innocence will be preserved.
And then again.... Ayckbourn knows that he is writing not just for adults, but also for the children in us. He enjoys subverting the familiar story by having the witch also fall for the prince and execute various stratagems to lure him from his princess. He even parodies himself by having the now-married Mr & Mrs Prince (“I took his name,” simpers Aurora) move to the suburbs that have been his dramatic stamping ground for decades; they take out a mortgage on number 29 Brown Brick Road and find jobs as a shelf-stacker and a topless waitress. But once the witch is stripped of her powers and told to ensnare the prince using mortals’ wiles, there is little doubt the story will end with her redemption and the Princes’ coming through.
The cast consists of four principals – prince, princess, witch and her minion the Pigcutter – and half a dozen narrators who also play all other roles and voice much of the score. Denis King’s jaunty music is played by a single keyboard, fleshed out by the narrators’ vocal harmonies. Anna Francolini puts in a remarkable turn as the witch Carabosse (later made over into simple “Cara”) and Duncan Patrick is a prince whose good heart always gets his weak head out of trouble. Among the narrators, Matthew White excels in a scene as the chief sorceress. Not a classic Ayckbourn on which to end an era, but a warming distillation of several of the strains running through his work.
(Financial Times, 21 December 2008)
Awaking Beauty (by Benedict Nightingale)
So was it happily ever after for the Sleeping Beauty and Prince Charming after he interrupted her 100-year snooze? Not in the view of Stephen Sondheim, who brought his trademark cynicism to Into the Woods, giving us a hero who turned out to be serially lovelorn and terminally fickle. And only partly in the view of Alan Ayckbourn, who has always tended to think that love and marriage go together less like a horse and carriage than a mule and an overloaded dray.
And that looks like being the conclusion of his Awaking Beauty, a musical play that is the last piece he will write for his seaside theatre before he retires as its artistic director in March. It’s also his 72nd work for the stage, which leaves him a few score short of Lope de Vega’s total oeuvre but may well be a British record. And, yes, it had me appreciating some wry lyrics, chuckling at some mischievous moments, and humming Denis King’s larky tunes. But, no, it lacks Sondheim’s bite, opting for an upbeat ending that the Manhattan maestro would disdain.
Call the piece pleasantly preposterous. Call it dauntingly eventful, too. Ayckbourn ladles out narrative like a crazed spendthrift, starting with an episode in which Duncan Patrick’s very public-school Prince kisses Alice Fearn’s demure Princess awake, promptly disrobes and jumps into bed with her, and wakes in the morning to find that Anna Francolini’s wicked witch has locked the girl in the loo and substituted herself between the sheets.
Things don’t get simpler. The hero and heroine move to the suburbs, so impoverished that he becomes a supermarket stacker while she has triplets who screech all night. Meanwhile, the sexually besotted witch, aka Carabosse, follows them, having been deprived of her powers by a chief sorceress who, as played in majestic panto-dame style by Matthew White, more than justifies her title of “your imperial viciousness”. Oh, and Ben Fox appears as a lackey who, even though she has turned him into a pig, so adores Carabosse that he uses her absence to do a lot of DIY in her cave.
That’s not the only time that Ayckbourn has ditched his customary logic. Even by fairytale standards, his plot seems as seamless as a mad granny’s quilt. Why does the hero and heroine’s store of gold turn to paper while the witch’s bullion stays intact? Why does the pig suddenly transmute back into a man? Worse, why does Francolini’s splendid witch have to have a change of heart as well as an entertaining makeover at the hairdresser’s? I preferred her when she was cackling like an Essex chav, snapping out four-letter words – and adding colour to what is, all cavils aside, an exuberant evening aimed more at adults than children.
(The Times, 19 December 2008)
Awaking Beauty (by Lynne Walker)
The princess gets her prince and the witch gets her pig, so you could say that all ends well in Sir Alan Ayckbourn's 72nd piece for theatre, Awaking Beauty. But in this slight comedy, a musical created with Denis King, and "filled with lust, laughter and just a little love", according to Ayckbourn, what begins as a quirky take on the Sleeping Beauty myth, with more than a little sexual innuendo, becomes an unsatisfactory social satire intended for an adult audience.
After jumping into bed with Aurora, the Prince wakes to find himself with the witch Carabosse. But bewitched into adoring her, the Prince is unable to love her as she desires, so Carabosse goes off to the city to be transformed into an alluring woman. But not before she's taken advice from the Sorceress (a splendid pantomime dame turn from Matthew White). The Princes - Aurora having taken her husband's name - settle down in the suburbs, have triplets, and struggle to exist in the real world. Prince stacks shelves and Mrs Prince is visited by Carabosse who, pretending to be a marketing executive, offers her a rosy red apple to bite
This allusion to the plot of Snow White is only one of several stories referenced in passing. My Fair Lady gets a look-in too, when, after her transformation from hag to covergirl, Carabosse is given elocution exercises to sing. Stephen Sondheim also lurks in the twists and turns of this anti-fairy tale. Anna Francolini's Carabosse, Verity Quade's cosmetic surgeon and Ben Fox's snorting Pigcutter stand out in an admirable 10-strong ensemble.
There are too many tangled strands, as if Ayckbourn's narrative thread had become snagged and diverted by the overgrown branches through which the Prince has to cut his way to the palace. Yet Ayckbourn, who also directs, relies on old-fashioned theatre values allowing his craftsmanship to stand out in a genre where money and technology rule.
He may be standing down as artistic director of the theatre in January (he's 70 next spring) but his successor Chris Monks will surely want more from the pen of this most fluent of writers. He may produce something more remarkable than Awaking Beauty and less like candyfloss spiked with chilli.
(The Independent, 31 December 2008)
All reviews are copyright of the respective publication.