Johnny McKnight dominates the Central Belt pantos this year, but sadly one of his scripts has been hobbled by an over-stylised production, robbing it of its energy.
Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh
Rating: * *
CRASH, BANG, THUMP; no, it’s not the sound of a traditional panto slapstick sequence, but the dull thud of artistic failure at this year’s Lyceum Christmas show, which launches itself fearlessly into the gap between raucous panto fun and serious fairytale drama, and ends up flat on its face, in a faint whimper of sub-Sondheim show music. It’s not as if Lyceum Christmas shows have never ventured into this shadowy land between panto and fairytale before. More than 20 years ago, writers like Stuart Paterson were spinning magical bridges across the gap, weaving fine webs that combined fairytale magic and panto fun with a strong modern questioning of traditional panto values; his version of Cinderella was the first I ever saw in which Cinders decided that she preferred Buttons to the Prince.
This time around, though, Lyceum boss Mark Thomson has commissioned a new Cinderella from the current king of raucous postmodern Scottish panto, Johnny McKnight, who has set the whole story in Paris, and produced a fine, fast-talking riff on the style-obsessed evil of wicked stepmother Monique and her two ugly daughters, along with a running joke about a prince who is the very embodiment of vacuous celebrity.
The problem with Thomson’s ill-fated production is that it simply never allows the panto party to start. The audience is completely locked out of the action, in a way that makes the villainess and ugly sisters much less funny, and much more tediously unpleasant. The central romance between Julie Heatherill’s lovely Cinderella and Spencer Charles Noll’s haunting, voiceless Buttons-figure is underwritten and largely ignored, in favour of displays of nastiness at which we’re not even allowed to boo. And the original songs, by Andrew Penman, range from the effectively witty at best, to the toe-curlingly dreadful at worst. None of this is the fault of the cast, a fine ensemble of actors. It’s just that the terms of the interaction with the audience are wrong from the start; and the result is as pointless and as disempowering for the audience as it is dramatically dull.
The MacRobert, Stirling
Rating: * * * *
All of which makes it a relief to enter into the jolly arena of the MacRobert at Stirling, where the version of Cinderella McKnight wrote for the theatre a few years ago is given a sure-footed, high-energy revival by his professional sparring-partner, Julie Brown. This Cinderella is essentially a motor-mouthed 21st-century take on a traditional version of the story, built round the MacRobert tradition of incorporating large teams of local teenagers in the cast; here, they play nice trainee fairies and wicked trainee Dames with tremendous flair, all choreographed with quiet excellence by movement chief Karen Martin. With Richard Conlon and Jonathan Holt as a pair of potty-mouthed Ugly Sisters, Louise Ludgate as wicked stepmother, Ryan Fletcher as a Buttons who nearly gets the girl, and the lovely Angela Hardie as a feisty Cinderella with a great singing voice, this panto was never likely to fail; and in the end, it’s a rough-and-ready but roaring popular success.
The Tron, Glasgow
Rating: * * * *
If this is the year of Johnny McKnight in Scottish panto, though, then there’s no doubt about which show is its centrepiece; for at the Tron in Glasgow, McKnight writes, directs and stars in a hilarious new version of Dickens’s mighty A Christmas Carol, with an entirely female cast of characters. The show – Aganeza Scrooge – is named for its central character, a Glasgow Merchant City diva with a hard-faced attitude to business, played by McKnight in a glittering gold catsuit and fierce black wig; her suffering employee Cratchit is a single Mum with a sick child, hilariously played by Sally Reid as a feisty brat with an unpredictable temper; and all the other characters are played by women or as women, to highly theatrical and thought-provoking effect. McKnight’s show is a tremendous romp, with as high a quotient of panto fun as any Christmas entertainment around. Yet despite all that, it retains a certain operatic moral seriousness, a deep sense of the moral connections between current harsh times in the Trongate, and the cruelly divided London in which Dickens wrote, 170 years ago; and Kenny Miller’s design and costumes are dazzling, all startling oligarch bling, set in a clear context of social suffering, both modern and historic.
Leap aboard the Aberdeen train, though, and you soon find yourself escaping the gravitational pull of Planet McKnight, for a different panto world.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
His Majesty’s Theatre, Aberdeen
Rating: * * *
This year, His Majesty’s in Aberdeen reassembles its hugely successful team of Alan McHugh as writer and Dame, Alex Norton as director, and Elaine C Smith as fairy godmother or wicked lady, to offer a thoroughly entertaining family version of Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs, featuring little local schoolkids in big masks as a truly delightful team of dwarfs.
On balance – and despite a terrifically scary dragon – this Aberdeen panto seems a little lacklustre by recent standards; Smith seems a shade uneasy with the role of villainess, the script plods a bit through the essential plot development, and the local references often dwindle to little more than a relentless use of Aberdeenshire place-names. Yet this is still a fine, good-value family panto. The cast’s terrific Aberdeen version of Living La Vida Loca (Living In New Pitsligo) is almost worth the ticket price in itself; and with a few fine riffs on Donald Trump, and on the Aberdeen man who got his head stuck in a rubbish bin, it seems the future of local panto in Scotland’s third city is safe, for another year.
• Cinderella at the Royal Lyceum runs until 29 December; Cinderella at the MacRobert until 31 December; Aganeza Scrooge until 5 January; and Snow White until 6 January.