Reviews: Christmas theatre 2016, week 3 (Sunday Herald)




King’s Theatre, Glasgow

Until January 8



SECC Clyde Auditorium, Glasgow

Until December 31


Dick McWhittington

Perth Concert Hall

Until December 26


Hansel & Gretel

Citizens Theatre, Glasgow

Until January 7


Reviewed by Mark Brown

Gregor Fisher & Tony Roper as the Ugly Sisters in Cinderella.

The pantomime at Glasgow’s King’s Theatre, once the jewel in the crown of Scottish Christmas theatre, has suffered something of an identity crisis in recent years. Since the untimely passing of the Clydeside theatre’s master of revels Gerard Kelly six years ago, the Yuletide show has, with varied success, featured a number of big name stars, ranging from Karen Dunbar to Greg McHugh (aka Gary: Tank Commander) and, last year, Gregor Fisher.

In truth, even Fisher couldn’t save the 2015 offering, Snow White And The Seven Dwarves, from its own lack of conviction. This year’s show, Cinderella, in which Fisher and his long time collaborator Tony Roper play the repugnant Ugly Sisters, is an improvement, of sorts.

Director Morag Fullarton’s production for pantomime specialists First Family Entertainment ticks most of the King’s Christmas show boxes, from high kicking dancers to cute Shetland ponies. Fisher and Roper are delightfully ludicrous in a series of increasingly absurd costumes, even if Roper seemed a tad under-rehearsed on opening night. The double-entendres were coming thick and fast from writer Eric Potts’s script, until Roper slowed proceedings down by forgetting a line.

One can’t help but feel that, once again, despite Des Clarke busting a gut in the jester role, the King’s panto isn’t quite firing on all cylinders. Which makes the hilarious and assured performance by Gary Lamont (River City’s Robbie Fraser) as the Prince’s manservant Dandini all the more of a stand-out.

If the King’s show lacks a bit of energy, the same cannot be said of Aladdin, starring Marti Pellow as baddie Abanazar. Which is just as well, as the production, from major pantomime producer Qdos Entertainment, needs all the vigour it can get in order to generate some atmosphere in the unforgiving, cavernous venue that is the SECC Clyde Auditorium (aka “The Armadillo”).

The SECC Christmas show is a relative newcomer to the Scottish panto scene. Like its competitor over at the King’s, it has gone through some turbulence in recent times.

Last year, David Hasselhoff famously replaced John Barrowman  in the lead role. This year The Krankies, who seemed to be permanent fixtures in the SECC show, have departed south, where they’re back with Barrowman in the Birmingham Hippodrome’s panto.

The Armadillo show (which is co-authored by Michael Harrison and prolific Scottish panto writer Alan McHugh) won’t be beaten for glitz, glamour or theatre technology. Its 3D animation (in which we encounter all manner of scary animals and ghouls on our way to Abanazar’s Egyptian hideout) is something to behold, as is the illusion that Aladdin (Michael Colbourne) and his daft brother Wishee Washee (Johnny Mac) are actually flying on a magic carpet.

Pellow (who is, of course, an experienced musical theatre performer) acquits himself well, and, like co-stars Wendy Mae Brown (The Empress), Frances Mayli McCann (The Princess), Shona White (the beneficent spirit Scheherazade) and Colbourne himself, the former Wet Wet Wet frontman is in excellent singing voice. Indeed, the focus of the production seems to have shifted from comedy to song. The sprightly Mac (with his witless catchphrase, “I’m enjoying myself!”) and the talented, but over-burdened, dame Iain Stuart Robertson (Widow Twankey) struggle to fill the comic gap left by The Krankies.

There are no such problems at Perth Concert Hall, where Ian Grieve directs top dame Barrie Hunter and a superb cast in a fabulously crazy production of Dick McWhittington (written by the seemingly ubiquitous McHugh). In this Caledonian version of the famous tale, Dick (John Winchester) has to be persuaded to give up his dreams of going to London to win The X Factor, as Perth is in danger of being overrun by the evil Queen Rat (Eleanor Griffiths) and her verminous army.

The baddies are soon facing Dick and his fearless sidekick Kitty the cat (a cross between Top Cat and Hong Kong Phooey, played with great verve and charm by Helen Mackay). Meanwhile Hunter’s sweety shop manager Senga McScruff (mother to Harry Ward’s wonderfully comic panto dafty Sandy) has the hots for her boss Stanley Mills (the excellent Ian Bustard as a dodgy dealing, Arthur Daley type who seems to own half of Perth).

As if this isn’t bonkers enough, Stanley has done a ludicrous deal to export sweets to the blue-blooded Moroccan Sultan Vinegar (Ryan Paterson) and his Cockney daughter Babs (Camrie Palmer). Cue a cruise, en masse, to North Africa, on which Hunter reconfirms his place as Scotland’s finest panto dame with a gloriously over-the-top performance.

While Perth, once again, makes a strong case for being the best pantomime in the country, Glasgow’s Citizens Theatre is upholding its tradition of producing lively, stylish and brilliantly acted works of family theatre at Christmas time. This version of Hansel & Gretel, staged by the Citz’s acclaimed artistic director Dominic Hill, is the famous German fairytale, but not quite as you know it.

Stuart Paterson (adaptor of many a children’s story for the Yuletide stage) has brought the cosmic battle between good and bad magic (wizard Orin versus witch Banshee) into the story. Indeed, Banshee (aka La Stregamama) lives, not in a gingerbread house, but in the deliciously sweet fortune teller’s caravan of a circus in which she holds the performers hostage.

Thanks to Paterson’s mastery of structure, this narrative holds together surprisingly well, and the circus characters (who also perform live music) provide splendid colour to the show. Needless to say, the abandoning of the poor siblings Hansel and Gretel (Shaun Miller and Karen Fishwick on splendidly innocent-yet-intrepid form) remains at the very heart of a tale well told.

Rachael Canning’s designs (not least a terrifying, massive puppet of the witch queen and beautiful costumes for the circus performers) exemplify another top class Citz Christmas show.

These reviews were originally published in the Sunday Herald on December 18, 2016

© Mark Brown

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