Until January 8
Hansel And Gretel
Until January 7
Beauty And The Beast
Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh
Until December 31
Reviewed by Mark Brown
Who would have thought, back in 1981 – when Clare Grogan was bouncing around the set of Top Of The Pops, singing Altered Images’ chart topper Happy Birthday – that the star would turn up 30 years later performing that self-same song in the Glasgow King’s famous pantomime? It’s a strange sight, for sure, but no stranger than Kim Wilde becoming one of Britain’s most famous gardeners.
Grogan’s appearance as wicked (and, as is the Scottish panto tradition, posh English) fairy Carabosse is a definite highlight of Tony Cownie’s rollicking production of Sleeping Beauty. The wielder of the fatal spinning wheel, she is unquestionably the sassiest pantomime baddie this side of Narnia. When, midway through act one, she reappears with the words “did you miss me?”, I swear the children’s cries of “no!” were almost drowned out by a chorus of 40-something men shouting “yes!” It’s a far cry from the days when this panto featured Elaine C Smith, dressed as Britney Spears in schoolgirl mode.
There is, however, more to the success of this show than the inspired casting of Grogan. Karen Dunbar (in the role of Nanny, carer to the eponymous princess) must now be assured of her place in Scottish panto history. From her wonderfully lurid costumes, to her array of gags (by turns topically pop cultural and timelessly terrible) and her excellent ad-libs (not least when the youngsters in the audience mistake her decrepit, elderly Nanny for Carabosse in disguise, and boo her), she is every inch the music hall performer. When Dunbar leads the audience in a medley of old Clydeside favourites (including Ye Cannae Shove Yer Granny Off A Bus and Ally Bally Bee) one truly feels transported back to the halcyon days of the King’s.
There are some superb supporting performances, too. Tony Roper’s Hector the Henchman (reluctant sidekick to Carabosse) is truly old school Glasgow panto (right down to demanding a cup of tea and a copy of his favourite tabloid). Steven McNicoll (rosey-cheeked and relentlessly daft) and Kathryn Howden (all hilarious, nouveau-riche West of Scotland vowels) are a class double act as the King and Queen.
If one has any doubts about the show (the, quite literal, wardrobe malfunction of opening night notwithstanding), it is in the role of the jester (who goes here, by the name of Jimmy Jingles). Arron Usher makes a very reasonable fist of it, but one can’t help but feel that the King’s needs to rethink its lead male comic role.
Just over a year on from the devastating death of Gerard Kelly, the part still seems to have been written for the great man. Too often, Usher’s lines and catchphrases sound like Kelly’s, albeit with a slight, respectful alteration. It is, surely, time for the King’s to have an entirely different kind of male lead, and allow the Kelly role to be forever Kelly’s.
Over the River Clyde, on Glasgow’s southside, the Citizens Theatre is, as ever, offering a stylishly theatrical alternative to the traditional pantomime. Director Guy Hollands set the benchmark pretty high with last year’s gorgeous Beauty And The Beast, and, in truth, he doesn’t quite reach those heights with this play with songs, Hansel And Gretel. That said, Alan McHugh’s lovely, crisp script, Neil Haynes’s classy sets (especially the brilliant witch’s kitchen, complete with dangling skeleton), and some top notch performances ensure that the Gorbals playhouse has another hit Christmas show.
Hollands’s casting is superb. Not only does he bring back last year’s Beauty (Gemma McElhinney, as Gretel) and Beast (Jim Sturgeon, as Hansel and Gretel’s father, Peter), but he gives a professional debut to Jennifer Harraghy (as the witch, Vanya); who, if this performance is any measure, has a great future in musical theatre ahead of her. Harraghy plays the supernatural shape-changer (a haggard, thousand-year-old woman, who poses, variously, as a beautiful, young woman and a sinister magpie) with a tremendous sense of sinister seduction. She is also possessed of a tremendous singing voice, equal in both range and power.
If Harraghy’s singing is a high point, Claire McKenzie’s musical score is, simultaneously, impressive and perplexing. At one moment, the music seems to have been written for a conventional, West End London musical, yet, at another, the instrumentals are decidedly and romantically Celtic. The shift is an uncomfortable one which does little to enhance this lovely production’s sense of identity.
If the Citz’s show has a slight problem where identity is concerned, the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh’s Beauty And The Beast has a veritable crisis. Designer-turned-director Neil Murray’s piece has some panto-style moments of audience participation early on, but attempts to proceed theareafter as a more straightforward play; by which, time the metaphorical genie is out of the bottle, and his cast seem somewhat perplexed by the young audience’s insistence on screaming “he’s behind you!” when no such outbursts have been solicited.
More problematic still is respected Christmas show writer Stuart Paterson’s adaptation of this much-loved French fairytale. Gone is the beautiful simplicity of La Belle Et La Bête, to be replaced by an overloaded cast of characters, ranging from three witches, to a goblin and an Old English Sheepdog.
The Lyceum is, rightly, famous for its high quality Christmas shows, and this production is not without its charms; in particular, Lewis Howden (as Father) and Mark McDonnell (various roles) provide strong performances. Ultimately, however, this year’s offering is best forgotten.
These reviews were originally published in the Sunday Herald on December 11, 2011
© Mark Brown