COLCHESTER'S Mercury Theatre’s Sleeping Beauty deserves a full-house, every night, for its imaginative, artistic, and not-too-festive pantomime performance, proving how – together, family-fun and live-comedy - is a true love hit.

The first over-an-hour act opens in a wintry wonderland, with Fairy Fizz (Sasha Latoya) appearing as the child-friendly narrator, pulling off her opening song, the ‘Backstory Rap’, with impressive stage-presence and genuine warmth.

Quickly, the very loose plot – ‘Colchesteria’ has had an evil, or rather self-centred, ruler for the past 18-years who is obsessed with raising rents – is, characteristically, poked fun at, particularly by the ‘mother-and-son’ duo Anthony Stuart-Hicks and Dale Superville.

Perhaps to residents who watch the panto every year, it is obvious how indebted the appeals to all-ages pantomime is to the Bard.

But to myself with fresh eyes – I have not seen a panto since about Year 3 – it is remarkable to watch two men improvise, insult, and enthral the audience, providing stand-out moments both in their off-the-cuff retorts.

The third element of this perfectly balanced ensemble was the sweet romance between the beautiful Princess Luna (Alexandra Barredo) and the dashing Prince Istuna (Phillip Catchpole) - convincing as characterful individuals and lovebirds.

While the catchy piano music of Scouting for Girls smash love-song - She’s So Lovely – was used to speedily persuade us of their love, and as the main opening earworm, nicely established that the production was going to be happily familiar, a timeless and feelgood classic.

Another intelligent use of music was Eurhythmics’ 1980s pop-synth track Sweet Dreams which became both the baddie’s butt-kicking anthem and a segue-way to the sleeping spell, a glorious full-circle moment at the end of the terrific first half.

Charisma was dripping off the whole of the cast, along with the versatile choreographed chorus, and the mean fairy Queen Carabosse (Jaimie Purden) was extremely expressive and in her own, wild-eyed, outfit-changing, and latex-wearing way, also magical.

With a Big Cook, Little Cook style skit, a further final act appearance, and sublime West-End standards throughout - staging, ‘hair’, and costume – Sleeping Beauty is inventive, creative, and festive.

Though the innuendo torpedoed over the heads of the dancing children on my row, all ages will be washed over by the intricacy in every layer of Mercury Theatre’s enviable cast, crew, and writing.

5 stars