Reviews: Christmas theatre 2016, week 1 (Sunday Herald)

CHRISTMAS THEATRE REVIEWS

 

George’s Marvellous Medicine

Dundee Rep

Until December 31

 

Weans In The Wood

MacRobert Arts Centre, Stirling

Until December 31

 

The Princess And The Pie

Oran Mor, Glasgow

Until December 23

 

Reviewed by Mark Brown

 

princess-and-the-pie
Clare Waugh, George Drennan, Steven McNicoll, Frances Thorburn in The Princess and the Pie at Oran Mor. Photo: Leslie Black

A weird concoction of strange, unexpected and disparate elements that induces confusion and leaves a curious aftertaste. If that is a good description of the titular potion in Roald Dahl’s story George’s Marvellous Medicine, it is equally appropriate to Joe Douglas’s Christmas staging of the tale for Dundee Rep.

As long-suffering George mixes his pernicious syrup (a revenge against his tyrannical grandmother), one wonders if we, the audience, are breathing in hallucinogenic vapours. Much of what designer Ana Ines Jabares-Pita has put on stage seems to belong to the realm of drug-induced illusion, rather than yuletide theatrical fare.

For instance, George appears to have a somewhat sinister alter-ego who is dressed in a body suit that also covers his head and face (think The Stig from Top Gear in tight-fitting turquoise). Similarly anonymous stage hands, dressed in green, hide in plain sight, helping to assemble George’s ingeniously conceived family home before our eyes and manoeuvring Grandma’s decidedly low-tech armchair.

A limited, electronic musical score (which might have sounded futuristic in 1976) repeats itself while fluorescent tubes flash with a ferocity that makes one wonder if the show should contain a warning to people with epilepsy.

All of which leaves the cast struggling to express the undoubted comedy of Dahl’s tale. Rebekah Lumsden (who alternates in the lead role with Laurie Scott throughout the run) plays George with admirable gusto. Meanwhile, Ann Louise Ross’s fabulously irascible Grandma has the kids in stitches as she, quite literally, goes through the roof.

Emily Winter and Ewan Donald put in high-energy performances as George’s warring parents, while fine actor Irene Macdougall resists the temptation to scream, “I’ve played Shakespeare, you know?”, from inside a giant chicken costume. Try as they might, however, none can displace Jabares-Pita’s designs from their distracting central place in the production.

There are few such issues with the designs for the MacRobert Arts Centre’s seasonal panto Weans In The Wood, which is penned by the venue’s longstanding Christmas writer Johnny McKnight. Designer Karen Tennent’s deep, dark wood, gingerbread house and outrageous frocks are exactly what we expect in Pantoland.

The script is another matter. McKnight (who is also author, director and lead actor of the pastiche panto at Glasgow’s Tron Theatre these days) has pulled another postmodern rabbit out of his capacious hat.

The play that director Julie Ellen has on her hands is Hansel & Gretel-meets-Harry Potter-meets-Robin Hood. To that, you can add a bit of Little Red Riding Hood and, this being McKnight, oodles of pop culture references.

The narrative may be an intentional hodge podge, but it does feel a little lacklustre at times. This is particularly true in the conflation of smartphones with magic wands, which leaves our witchy heroine, Magic Merlina, proprietress of the School for Magical Minions (played hilariously by dame Mark McDonnell), in constant search of a recharger.

None of which detracts from McDonnell’s performance. About as feminine as the late Les Dawson in drag, he renders his fellow actors, as well as the audience, helpless with laughter with an improvisational single entendre involving a bear’s nose.

Elsewhere, there are strong performances from Helen McAlpine (baddie Sheriffina Nottingham), Dawn Sievewright (the intrepid Little Red) and the MacBob’s traditional all singing, all dancing chorus of keen and talented youngsters.

Spoiler alert, as if to celebrate Scotland’s well-deserved reputation as one of the most gay friendly countries in the world, McKnight closes the show with a wedding between the excellent Robert Jack’s Hans-No-Solo and Prince Ronaldo (James Rottger). Just how Gretel (Katie Barnett) doesn’t realise that Hans (who is obsessed with Zac Efron) is gay is a mystery.

If the MacRobert’s pantomime seems a little overwrought, Morag Fullarton’s lunchtime panto at the Oran Mor is a beautifully structured hour of fun. In The Princess And The Pie, a penniless Highland Queen (George Drennan) and his blue-blooded son (Clare Waugh) come to Glasgow in search of, respectively, cash and love.

What they find instead is a slippery, English confidence trickster with snobbish pretentions (Steven McNicoll) and his Glaswegian nedette niece, Sadie (Frances Thorburn), who wants to be famous for being famous. Drennan’s queen, head of the House of Tattie of Scone, may seem like a tartan-clad numpty, but she has a sure-fire plan (involving a special Scotch pie) to discover whether the niece really is the European princess her uncle claims her to be.

Meanwhile, the Prince has fallen in love with a working-class Scots-Polish lassie, Betty from Krakow (also played by Thorburn). Betty is worried, on account of the Brexit vote, about her residency status; one of many reasons why a mannequin of Boris Johnson is in the stocks stage left, his head at just the correct height to take a regular kicking (although, surely, a rubber Boris mask is in order, as the current dummy looks more like a bedraggled Norman Tebbit than the buffoonish Foreign Secretary).

Delightfully silly, with gloriously daft songs (including ‘Brush Up Your Glasgow’, a Stanley Baxteresque ditty about the Clydeside lingo), director Tony Cownie’s production is tight as a drum. The four-strong cast (who are assisted by the recorded voice of narrator Robbie Coltrane) are excellent to a cross-dressed woman and man.

The actors visibly enjoy the occasionally profane leverage that an adult panto allows.

Speaking of which, it is inevitable that Drennan gets his trumpet out; there’s no double-entendre here, the actor is also an accomplished musician.

These reviews were originally published in the Sunday Herald on December 4, 2016

© Mark Brown

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