In the foyer at the King’s Theatre in Glasgow, Gerard Kelly’s memorial bronze boots shine brightly this Christmas; and it’s good to report that the spirit of Kelly – the Glasgow panto’s greatest-ever daft laddie, until his death in 2010 – is alive and thriving on stage this year, in a good-looking and joyful version of Cinderella directed with memorable warmth by Morag Fullarton, who also wrote this year’s smash-hit A Play, A Pie And A Pint panto at Oran Mor. It’s not that this version of Cinderella from First Family Entertainment is exactly hand-crafted in Glasgow; the sets are standard-issue panto kitsch, and Eric Potts’s decent script has no real through-line of Glasgow references. Yet the show is presented with real sparkle on the King’s big stage; and it’s carried with terrific zest by the King’s fine new daft laddie Des Clarke, now in his fifth year in the role.
King’s Theatre, Glasgow
Hansel & Gretel ***
Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow
Dick McWhittington ****
Perth Concert Hall
This Cinderella also has a great asset in its leading couple, who – in a hugely entertaining triangle with Gary Lamont’s gay Dandini – bring far more personality than usual to the show’s romantic encounters; Josh Tevendale, as Prince Charming, has a beautiful voice, and Gillian Ford’s Cinderella is a delight, acting her tattered kitchen slippers off in a role often treated as a mere cipher.
Great Glasgow stars Gregor Fisher and Tony Roper win roars of recognition as a pair of memorably grumpy old ugly sisters. As for the transformation scene – well, it looks like a dream come true; complete with little white Shetland ponies, and a smile from Cinderella that lights up the King’s stage almost as brightly as John Tapster’s excellent lighting, which sparkles throughout.
Things are much, much darker, over at the Citizens’ Theatre, where Dominic Hill tackles that most chilling of fairy tales, Hansel & Gretel, and – in this version by Stuart Paterson – does little to soften the story’s hard edges for the festive season.
Here, Hansel & Gretel’s new stepmother really is a terrifying witch, bent on their destruction; there’s also no doubt about the grinding near-starvation which drives their father to agree to abandon his children in the forest. And the feeling of relentless darkness is compounded by the show’s odd, uneasy circus motif, which isn’t adequately placed in the story’s moral narrative until well into the second half.
Things improve greatly after the interval, though, with Karen Fishwick’s lovely Gretel beginning to work as a real source of resistance to the witch’s evil, and Shaun Miller’s hugely likeable Hansel following suit.
The climactic scenes achieve an impressive triumph-over-evil momentum, complete with fierce audience participation; and with all the ingredients of a brilliant hand-crafted children’s show present on stage – including topical references to post-truth fear-based politics, and live music and sound by Nikola Kodjabashia – this Hansel & Gretel seems like a show that needs just a deft narrative and tonal remix to deliver an outstanding theatre experience, for both older children and adults.
At Perth, meanwhile, Ian Grieve’s genial panto company offer a hilarious post-modern Dick McWhittington, on a stage often dominated by a giant mobile phone screen on which the characters Skype each other with merry abandon.
The main problem here is the rollicking incoherence of Alan McHugh’s script, which begins by failing to explain why Dick McWhittington is the man to save Perth, and proceeds by failing to explain almost everything else, including the voyage to Morocco which dominates the second half.
In the absence of a plausibly narrated central romance, this Dick McWhittington is forced to rely heavily on its two leading comic characters, Dame Senga McScruff – the manageress of a Perth sweetie-shop – and her slightly gormless son Sandy; and it’s fortunate that both Harry Ward as Sandy, and a truly brilliant Barrie Hunter as Senga, are more than equal to the challenge.
With Johnny McKnight, Hunter is now the finest panto Dame in Scotland, relishing the role; there’s also impressive dancing from a six-strong team of local children, some fine work from Stuart Watson’s four-piece Perth panto orchestra, and an excellent final song-sheet.
The lack of a credible story robs the panto of some of its magic, in other words; but not of the rollicking mood of celebration that Perth audiences both demand and relish, right to the final curtain.
*Cinderella until 8 January; Hansel & Gretel until 7 January; Dick McWhittington until 26 December