The audience’s anticipation is met with a warm welcome of two protagonist of the pantomime Rapunzel at Theatre Royal Stratford East: Baby Bear (Gemma Salter), also known as Harry, and Egor (Gary Wood), the bird of paradise, who congratulate specific audience members as well as the whole theatre ‘community’ by singing together and taking them into the woods where the show takes place.

Rapunzel (Joanne Sandi) has been locked up in a tower by a wicked witch named Maddy (Michael Bertenshaw) and she shares her loneliness with her only friend Albert Mouse (Stephen Hoo). Maddy only cares about Rapunzel’s purple hair to create the “elixir of youth” but pretends Rapunzel has been confined to keep her safe from the world. Supported by her two assistants Iggy (Raj Bajaj) and Lizzy (Juliet Okotie), Maddy needs a second ingredient to fight the oblivion of age – yellow hair. The animals of the woods are used to covering their yellow fur, which especially annoys Baby Bear who dreams of adventures, not of hiding in fear. The world of the woods is turned upside down when Goldilocks (Julie Yammanee) breaks into the house of Family Bear and decides to rescue Rapunzel to answer the call of the needed hero. Goldilocks’ determination and courage is challenged when she finally meets Rapunzel and reveals her golden hair.

Written by Trish Cooke, directed by Pooja Ghai and composed by Robert Hyman, this adaptation of Rapunzel is an inventive retelling of the famous fairy tale. Musical Director Ian MacGregor accompanies the unfolding story on keyboards and is also part of the constant breaking of the fourth wall by inviting audience participation through singing or providing support to the heroes on their fight against evil. It also features a diverse cast who partly embody several roles.

Apart from exciting and entertaining audience participation, immersion into the show is triggered by the costume and set design (William Fricker). Furthermore, stunning magic tricks (thanks to the special effects provided by Scott Penrose) and finely tuned singing and dance performances (choreography by Wayne Parsons) invites everyone into the created community of the theatrical world. The cast gives a passionate and convincing presentation on stage, reflecting their joy to the audience. Bertenshaw is strong as Maddy, juggling humour and the “evil spirit” for great entertainment. The two female protagonists, Sandi and Yammanee, are an effective team on stage and Okotie as Mrs Bear shines as a strict but caring mum.

This pantomime raises important political and social issues covered in entertaining jokes and a fairy tale frame, making it highly enjoyable not only for children, but for adults alike. Undermining narrative stereotypes, like only a prince being responsible for carrying out a rescue or the definite death of the evil character, opens several layers of interpretation and challenges our understanding of storytelling. Nevertheless, the clear statement for the celebration of difference to reinforce togetherness is not superimposed or patronizing. It is rather an invitation to join a (temporal) community in a politically charged and complex time.

Rapunzel is a heart-warming and successful show that invites everyone to have a blast together with his or her loved ones in order to concentrate on what counts. The show convinces with animating participation, stunning design, enthralling performances, catchy songs and inventive storytelling. If you want to get festive, let your hair down for Rapunzel.

Rapunzel is playing at the Theatre Royal Stratford East until January 13 2018

Photo: Scott Rylander