The quest for something different from the usual round of Christmas fairy tales has led Scotland’s theatre companies down some strange paths, of late; and none stranger than the one that leads to Roald Dahl’s dark and disturbing children’s story, The Witches, this year’s Christmas show at Dundee Rep.
In a world full of new and old forms of misogyny, I can’t be the only person to feel slightly disturbed by a festive show that begins by inviting the children in the audience to take a close, suspicious look at any women sitting near them, in case they turn out to be witches. And the first half of the Dahl story - in which our orphaned hero, Boy, is subjected to such a bruising encounter with a convention of witches that he ends up being turned permanently into a mouse - is often so relentlessly scary and grotesque that it becomes just a bit tedious.
The Witches | Rating: **** | Dundee Rep
Rapunzel | Rating: **** | Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow
Cinderella | Rating: *** | Byre Theatre, St Andrews
The story brightens up greatly, though, in the second half, when Boy and his lovely Norwegian grandma begin to hatch up plans to defeat the High Grand Witch and her followers. And what’s undeniable about Jemima Levick’s production is that the story is beautifully presented, in a big, good-looking staging that features a cast of ten and a team of five extra witches, excellent songs and music by Jon Beales, a terrific series of light-touch evocative sets by Jean Chan, and some truly outstanding movement sequences by EJ Boyle, all presided over by a wise and wonderful Irene Macdougall as Grandma, and a terrific Emily Winter as the High Grand Witch.
There’s also a pretty terrifying witch-figure in Annie Siddons’s stage version of Rapunzel at the Citizens’s; yet there’s no resisting the primal power of this Rapunzel story, in which the over-possessive adoptive mother of a down-to-earth, dungaree-wearing Rapunzel first locks her in a tower to protect her from men, and then - when she discovers that Rapunzel is already in love with a wandering prince - becomes a pursuing fury, determined to keep the lovers apart.
This Rapunzel suffers slightly from the kind of design that aspires to junkyard ingenuity, but in fact often just doesn’t look much like what it’s supposed to be. Yet there are terrific central performances from Jessica Hardwick as Rapunzel and Wendy Seager as her mother-turned-witch; and Michael John McCarthy’s rock score - featuring a live onstage band headed by Cat Myers of Honeyblood - whips up a storm of music that gives a special cultural edge to Rapunzel’s quest for love and freedom, as she proves herself a girl determined to go rockin’ in the free world.
At the Byre in St Andrews, meanwhile, they stick with the traditional tale of Cinderella, but give the story such a determined new twist that it’s often almost unrecognisable. Gordon Barr’s version is set in a dance academy run by Cinders’ wicked stepmother, opening up the whole story to a Strictly Come Dancing theme; but given the brightness of this central idea, Barr’s script often seems surprisingly laboured, and short of really good jokes well delivered, particularly in a potentially powerful Ugly Sisters partnership between Alan Steele and Robert Elkin.
Yet this hit-and-miss version of Cinderella also features some terrific work from 12 young youth company actors as assorted potential partners and advisors to the Prince; and by the time Lynne Jenkinson’s sweet Cinderella finds her true love, the audience are more than happy to join in a fine, traditional song-sheet singalong - one of the few I’ve seen on the panto trail this year.
The Witches until 31 December, Rapunzel until 3 January, Cinderella until 2 January.