Until January 4
Peter Panto And The Incredible Stinkerbell
Tron Theatre, Glasgow
Until January 4
It’s A Wonderful Life
Pitlochry Festival Theatre
Until December 22
Reviewed by Mark Brown
Christmas is a time for jokes and larks of all kinds. Nevertheless, the comic concept at the heart of Perth Theatre’s latest pantomime does seem uncomfortably close to home.
With the theatre about to close for two years for refurbishment, Scotland’s prolific Mr Panto, Alan McHugh (author, I’m told, of eight Christmas shows this year), has reset Cinderella to a crumbling playhouse called the Palace Theatre. Therein, poor Cinders (Helen Mackay, an archetype of goodness, naivety and beauty) slaves away under the tyranny of her evil, Cockney stepmother Cressida (Vari Sylvester, a sort of fascist version of Joan Littlewood), who is hell-bent on running the theatre into the ground so she can sell it to property developers.
McHugh’s idea, which is, ultimately, about saving the playhouse with the help of the girls and boys in the audience (who are encouraged to “believe in theatre”), is a lovely one. Unfortunately, since he wrote the script, the Horsecross organisation (which runs Perth Theatre and Concert Hall) has not only lost its award-winning artistic director, Rachel O’Riordan (headhunted by Sherman Cymru in Cardiff), but its chief executive, Jacqueline McKay, and the majority of its board of directors have resigned amidst reports of a significant financial deficit.
Which is not to say that the theatre’s off-stage travails have affected the show. Directed by O’Riordan as her Perth swansong, the production is a fabulously silly traditional panto.
This is down in no small measure to the daft duo of Barrie Hunter and Michael Moreland, who play Cinders’ ludicrously costumed ugly stepsisters, Luvvie and Darling; a hilarious pair of man-hunting, ad-libbing, wildly unconvincing drag acts.
Hunter and Moreland’s deliberately bad singing is a humorous part of their repertoire. Elsewhere, however, one can’t help but feel that the show is asking a lot of actors whose singing abilities are, let’s say, limited.
Nevertheless, from Anne Kidd’s cheekily amorous theatrical fairy godmother Florence Olivier to James Rottger’s square-jawed Prince Charming, this is solid pantomime fare, with an ingenious twist. Let’s hope, like the Palace Theatre in the show, Perth Theatre emerges triumphant from its current difficulties.
There are difficulties aplenty, all of them on-stage, in the Tron, Glasgow’s latest festive offering Peter Panto And The Incredible Stinkerbell. Written by Johnny McKnight, it is a barrel-scraping disappointment.
McKnight has an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of contemporary popular culture (should he quit the Scottish stage, a career at Hello! magazine or ITV2 surely beckons), but one can’t help but feel he’s spreading it a bit thin here. As Peter Panto (Helen McAlpine, on fine, thigh-slapping form) alights in Hyndland and whisks off posh girl West End Wendy (the excellent Louise McCarthy, like totally vacuous, natch), the celebrity references come thick-and-fast, but with a noticeably low strike rate.
Although a mickey-taking musical number about the well-heeled ladies of Glasgow’s West End is a hoot, too many of the show’s jokes (like Anita Vettesse’s renamed baddie Captain New Look) just aren’t funny. There’s also a strand of theatrical in-jokes (such as naming Scottish Youth Theatre by its acronym “SYT”) which are unlikely to be understood by a general audience.
Despite the best efforts of a talented group of actors, including Sally Reid (as the trouser coughing Stinkerbell) and Darren Brownlie (the lone male in a refreshingly female-dominated cast), there is a limit to how much humour this poorly-structured, somewhat thrown-together show can squeeze out of the farty fairy’s bottom. As flat as it is flatulent, it is a stinker indeed.
If the Tron’s panto seems like a rushed job, Pitlochry Festival Theatre’s Christmas musical, the Scottish premiere of It’s A Wonderful Life, is a paragon of professional virtue. Based on Frank Capra’s evergreen 1946 film, with book, music and lyrics by Thomas M. Sharkey, this classy production will only enhance Pitlochry’s growing reputation as a producer of stage musicals.
Famously, the story of George Bailey (played in the movie by James Stewart), the crisis-hit owner of a savings and loans company who contemplates committing suicide on Christmas Eve, wasn’t an immediate hit with an American public which, coming out of World War II, wanted happy beginnings as well as happy endings. However, with its triumph of a good capitalist (George) over a bad one (the odious Henry Potter) and its picket fence image of family life, the film was so redolent of the American dream that its longer-term success was assured.
Director John Durnin and his universally impressive cast have fashioned a production which captures all of the pathos and the gentle humour of the movie. John Jack, fine voiced and convincingly anguished as George, could be a character from an Arthur Miller tragedy, so agonisingly do his dreams slip through his fingers.
Yet, very American though this tale is, the story, originally written by Philip Van Doren Stern, has more than enough Dickens to translate transatlantically; not least in the character of the ASC (Angel Second Class) Clarence Oddbody, played winningly here by Robin Harvey Edwards. Gillian Ford also gives a terrific, beautifully sung performance as George’s wife Mary, an inch-perfect vision of the post-war American female ideal.
The show boasts no fewer than 17 distinct songs, with musical styles drawn liberally from the American songbook, and musical director Jon Beales keeps things ticking along nicely. Meanwhile designer Charles Cusick Smith has done the theatre proud with gorgeously detailed sets; including an extraordinary, technically accomplished rendering of the film’s famous bridge. All -in-all, it’s a wonderful show.
These reviews were originally published in the Sunday Herald on December 15, 2013
© Mark Brown