After what happened this year, you could have forgiven the team behind the King’s panto if they had had a wobble. The death of Andy Gray from coronavirus in January at the age of 61 was not only a personal loss for his fellow actors Allan Stewart and Grant Stott but also the end of a longstanding panto institution. The triple act of Stewart, the dame, Stott, the baddie, and Gray, the clown, reigned supreme here for the best part of two decades.
The audience knows this too. The most moving moment of Sleeping Beauty comes when the lead actors pay tribute to “King Andy”, a man who, like a benign theatrical ghost, has the power even now to give the show a happy ending. The moment earns the most sustained applause of the night.
It’s nice his daughter Clare Gray is present to keep up the family tradition, playing a bolshie Princess Narcissa as a surly inversion of Sia Dauda’s Princess Aurora, who is all sweetness and light.
That leaves Stewart and Stott in a fascinating place. On the one hand they are adversaries: Stott as Carabosse, a towering figure in black, like a malevolent chess piece; and Stewart as Queen May, a tireless master of mirth, leading from the front. On the other hand, they are also the show’s central double act, repeatedly putting aside their differences for set pieces involving tongue-twisters, audience interaction and daft jokes. The lurch from laughter to booing really shouldn’t work as well as it does, but the whole thing is so slickly timed – right down to the supposed fluffs and adlibs – that you hardly notice.
The dominance of the star turns leaves relatively little space for the story of the spindle and the finger prick. The 100-year sleep is relegated to an incidental detail in favour of an act-one cliff-hanger about Jordan Young’s high-energy Muddles being captured by Carabosse. With an egalitarian twist, he gets to wake the princess, but has little time to develop much of a relationship with her. Logical flaws aside, though, the show has an energy and community spirit that’s impossible to resist.
• At King’s theatre, Edinburgh, until 16 January.