King’s Theatre, Glasgow
Until January 11
Perth Concert Hall
Until December 26
Miracle On 34 Parnie Street
Tron Theatre, Glasgow
Until January 4
Reviewed by Mark Brown
It’s all change for the 50th anniversary of the Glasgow King’s Theatre pantomime. Karen Dunbar, who had been the show’s headliner in recent years, is absent from this staging of Peter Pan, and Still Game star Gavin Mitchell (widely advertised as playing Captain Hook) had to make an eleventh-hour withdrawal due to an on-going cycling injury.
In their steads come Greg McHugh, of Gary: Tank Commander fame, in the role of hapless pirate Smee, and Alex Bourne, star of numerous London West End musicals, standing in for Mitchell as the one-armed captain of the Jolly Roger (following the rapid appointment, then departure, of Luther star Warren Brown).
Securing McHugh’s services was a masterstroke. His camper-than-Christmas affability is perfectly suited to the King’s panto, as are his Smee’s efforts to turn the pirate ship into a pleasure cruiser, complete with dancing ship’s company belting out YMCA by the Village People.
Spare a thought, however, for Des Clarke, who is performing the “Gerard Kelly role” of lovable dafty in his third King’s pantomime. Playing pirate Starkey directly opposite McHugh’s Smee is no easy task, and one can’t help but feel that Clarke’s turn as the audience’s pal has been somewhat diminished by the arrival of McHugh.
This slight structural awkwardness in the show notwithstanding, this Peter Pan, complete with Scott Fletcher and Joanne McGuinness as the reliably winsome Peter and Wendy, does the King’s panto’s golden anniversary proud. The political incorrectness of JM Barrie’s depiction of Tiger Lily and the “redskins” is almost redeemed by the hilarious scene in which Iain Gouck plays Big Chief Sitting Bull as an ultra-Glaswegian patriarch.
The only thing more quintessentially Weegie than that is the gag, referencing the absent Mitchell’s Still Game alter-ego Boaby the Barman, in which Smee challenges Hook to a game of “boaby” (in which Hook is required to answer every question with the word “boaby”). When he’s asked if he’d “rather have the money or the boaby”, and hundreds of children scream “the boaby”, you could close your eyes and easily imagine you’re at the Pavilion.
Perth’s pantomime, Sleeping Beauty, never sails quite so close to the wind. The show, which is directed and designed by the high priest of Scottish theatrical camp Kenny Miller, has upped sticks to the city’s Concert Hall this year, while its sister theatre undergoes major renovations.
Alan McHugh’s version of the tale is both replete with local, Perthshire references and distinctly down with the most annoying aspects of US-influenced contemporary youth culture (“like, totes amazeballs!”), even though, confusingly, it is set mainly in 1967. Beauty, aka “Gallus Ailie”, and her vacuous pals Cameron and Jinty rattle around in dopey King Hector’s castle like expensively dressed spoiled brats without a care in the world.
Director/designer Miller gives the scenario the garishly colourful costumes and sets it deserves (think pink bouffant hairdos and Liberace interiors). Although just why Lucretia, the evil aunt who casts the spell on Ailie, makes her entrance wearing a kaftan is anyone’s guess.
Add to this a decidedly flaky fairy godmother and a disconcertingly neddish fairy godfather, and the show might sound like something of a Technicolor nightmare. However, that is to reckon without Barrie Hunter, possibly the best Scottish pantomime dame since Stanley Baxter, as Ailie’s nursemaid Jessie Huff and Ian Grieve as King Hector.
Whenever either or both are on stage, the show moves into another comic dimension. Hunter’s rendition of I’ll Leave My Wig On (to the tune of You Can Leave Your Hat On, of course) has the audience in raptures.
The show boasts powerful singing from Gayle Telfer Stevens as Lucretia, even if elsewhere in the young cast there are performers who can act, but can’t sing (such as Ewan Donald, who plays Ailie’s love interest Cameron) or can dance, but can’t act (Brian Bremner as the weird fairy godfather). Ultimately, though, Miller finds some kind of cohesion and succeeds in creating an unlikely, but truly fun family night out, all led by the most brilliant of dames.
Which is to cast no aspersions on Johnny McKnight, writer, director and lead performer of the Tron’s pastiche panto Miracle On 34 Parnie Street. McKnight in drag is something to behold, like a cross between Kenny Everett’s American starlet Cupid Stunt and the same comedian’s rendering of Rod Stewart (complete with inflating bum).
Set in dodgy Glasgow department store TJ Confuse (luridly designed by, you guessed it, Kenny Miller), the ensuing mayhem, in which McKnight gives a characteristically high-octane performance as female Santa Kristine Cagney Kringle, seems like a head on collision between Miracle On 34th Street and Are You Being Served?
A superb, six-strong cast, including the tremendous Darren Brownlie as wonderfully attired (in green and black striped suit), megalomaniac store boss Cedric Bellhammer, rattle and ad lib their way through McKnight’s wonderfully ludicrous script. Michelle Chantelle Hopewell, in particular, is a real find, possessing, as she does, a fabulous singing voice and an ability to fit right in with the all-pervading silliness.
McKnight’s tongue-in-cheek parodies of much-love Christmas shows stand in the proud tradition of Forbes Masson’s Yuletide offerings at the Tron in the early years of this century. Now, as then, however, one wonders whether the show (which has a few too many Scottish theatre in-jokes this year) should really be seen as panto for adults, rather than a production for all the family.
A slightly abridged version of these reviews was originally published in the Sunday Herald on December 21, 2014
© Mark Brown