CHRISTMAS THEATRE REVIEWS
Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland
Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh
Until December 31
Scrooge: The Musical
Pitlochry Festival Theatre
Until December 23
The Snaw Queen
Tron Theatre, Glasgow
Until January 7
Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh
Until December 24
Reviewed by Mark Brown
If any Scottish dramatist was a shoo-in to adapt and direct Lewis Carroll’s much loved book Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland for the stage it was Anthony Neilson. His most critically acclaimed play, The Wonderful World Of Dissocia (2004), is a Carrollesque fantasia (albeit one for adult audiences) that occurs within the mind of a young woman suffering from dissociative disorder.
In turning Carroll’s tale into a work of family theatre, Neilson and his team have created the classiest, most beautiful, most engaging production imaginable. Designer Francis O’Connor, in particular, has created costumes and sets that will be remembered for many years to come.
From the gloriously nervous White Rabbit to the Mad Hatter (who has a huge, mainly loose, screw on top of his head), every character is brought to the most effervescent visual life. The uncluttered, yet fabulously detailed, set designs are equally impressive.
The smooth scene changes transform the stage wonderfully time and time again, whether it is the kitchen of Alan Francis’s brilliant, cross-dressed Duchess or the croquet lawn of the Queen of Hearts (who is played with delightful crazinesss by Gabriel Quigley). It is rare that a show on the Lyceum stage matches so perfectly the opulence of this grand, Victorian auditorium.
Neilson has assembled a top class ensemble led by Jess Peet, whose Alice is a superb combination of wide-eyed curiosity and precocious self-assertion. There’s a decidedly trippy Caterpillar (Zoe Hunter) and a fantastically nutty Hatter (Tam Dean Burn), not to mention a charmingly droopy Dormouse (Isobel McArthur).
The music and songs, by Nick Powell, draw marvellously on a variety of sources, not least The Beatles in their more hallucinogenic phase. Which only adds to the sense of this story as a gorgeous dream that unfolds in the mind of a particularly imaginative and intrepid child.
From Neilson’s enthralling, carefully honed script to O’Connor’s unforgettable designs, this production turns Carroll’s book into a beautifully paced, often hilarious and deeply memorable piece of theatre.
From the dream of a child to the nightmares of a shrivel-souled, old skinflint in Pitlochry Festival Theatre’s staging of Leslie Bricusse’s Scrooge: The Musical. The “theatre in the hills” is to be commended for establishing itself so firmly as Scotland’s premier producing house for musicals. A reputation which this fine production reconfirms.
Based on his own screenplay and music for the 1970 movie Scrooge, starring Albert Finney in the title role, Bricusse’s 1992 stage show bristles with such popular songs as ‘I Like Life’ and ‘Thank You Very Much’ (the latter of which, famously, turned up in a TV advert for chocolates). Director Richard Barron stages the piece with considerable gusto here, drawing on PFT’s strengths in live music, ensemble performance and design.
Dickens’s great curmudgeon Ebenezer Scrooge is played intelligently by Philip Rham, as not only a detestable miser, but also a vulnerably human, almost pitiful figure. His London is, in the hands of designer Adrian Rees, a picture postcard of yuletide Victoriana (although, in contrast to the Lyceum show, the set appears a little cumbersome in its moments of transformation).
As Scrooge is shown Christmases past, present and future, the all-singing, all-dancing ensemble present some lovely recreations of great Dickens set pieces. As Mr Fezziwig (Robin Harvey Edwards on fabulously avuncular form) throws his famous party, we are reminded that Dickens wrote his vivid prose to be performed (principally by himself).
There are, in truth occasional blemishes in the production. For a start, not everyone in the cast sings and dances as well as Lee Dillon-Stuart (even if his Cockney lad Tom Jenkins does veer into Dick Van Dyke territory), and the less said about the flimsy puppet that represents the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, the better.
That said, this is, ultimately, a confident, assured and, in Scrooge’s final, energetic transformation, totally heart-warming staging of a justly celebrated work of musical theatre.
It’s not just hearts that are being warmed at Glasgow’s Tron Theatre, where men’s laps are also feeling the heat; mainly because they’re being sat on by the irrepressible force of nature that is Johnny McKnight. Whoever coined the term “as camp as Christmas” clearly hadn’t foreseen McKnight’s The Snaw Queen (which is written, directed and, in no small measure, performed by the man himself).
Now firmly established as the Tron’s Mr Panto, the writer and performer reprises his unlikely Santa drag queen Kristine ‘Cagney’ Kringle. A goodie she may be, but Kringle (whose taste in pop culture and progressive politics is, one suspects, uncannily close to McKnight’s own) makes for a very unorthodox Santa indeed.
The gender switch to Mother Christmas is the least of it. Kringle lays into audience members, commenting bitchily on their hair and their fashion sense like a camp Frankie Boyle after too many glasses of Prosecco.
Playing fast and loose with Hans Christian Andersen’s story of The Snow Queen, McKnight and his excellent cast turn the Danish tale into a gallus, Glaswegian pastiche pantomime. The ever-excellent Darren Brownlie also drags up brilliantly, as he is transformed by a malignant shard of glass from the cute, inexplicably Irish Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer into the high-kicking, splits-performing, malevolent glamourpuss that is the Snaw Queen.
There’s royalty on the Glasgow subway, a-not-so-evil penguin sidekick (the hilarious Christopher Jordan-Marshall) and the intrepid Elvira (a sort of Weegie Wonderwoman, played by Louise McCarthy on typically top comic and vocal form). All of which points to yet another Christmas hit for the talented McKnight and chums, even if, like the Tron’s postmodern pantos of yore, it seems better suited to adults than younger children.
A show that definitely is for kids is Black Beauty at Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre. Created by the top Scottish children’s theatre team of Andy Cannon, Andy Manley and Shona Reppe, and performed by the two Andys, it is a delightfully quirky show for audiences aged six and over.
Black Beauty is, perhaps, best known in the UK as the 1970s TV series inspired by Anna Sewell’s 19th-century novel about an adventurous and fearless horse. Here the story is placed in the hands of “equestrian illusionists” (that’s pantomime horse performers to you and me) the McCuddy brothers, Andys Sr and Jr.
The lads are down on their luck, on account of theatres’ latter day preference for panto cows. Stuck in a lay-by, having had to sell their car, they are left with nothing besides a horse trailer and a tandem.
As they take refuge in Sewell’s book, they are assisted by a wonderfully nostalgic, horsey soundtrack (including, of course, the theme tune from the ITV Black Beauty series and the clip-cloppy music that used to accompany the BBC’s equestrian coverage).
Played on Reppe’s ingenious, versatile, slightly bonkers set, the piece is performed with great invention, humour and affection by Cannon and Manley. Indeed, the pair make a great double act, with Cannon playing the protective, authoritative figure to Manley’s dopey younger brother, who, given the chance, invents a hilarious story in which Black Beauty marries My Little Pony.
Very funny and deliciously unique, this Black Beauty isn’t just for young children. Even my son (a 16-year-old Glaswegian) was impressed. “It was”, he said, “neigh bad”.
These reviews were originally published in the Sunday Herald on December 11, 2016
© Mark Brown