It’s panto time, and into the woods we go, although with cutting-edge Scottish panto-writer Johnny McKnight in charge of the map and breadcrumbs, it soon becomes clear that this latest MacRobert panto, Weans In The Wood, directed by the theatre’s new boss Julie Ellen, is more of an extended riff on all the big woodland stories, from Hansel & Gretel to Robin Hood and Little Red, than a version of Babes In The Wood as we know it.
Weans In The Wood ****
George’s Marvellous Medicine ***
So there is a villain, in the shape of the nasty Sheraffina Nottingham who wants to fill the world with bad magic, and a good if bumbling Dame called Magic Merlina, who runs a school full of junior good wizards; the babes are Merlina’s daughter Gretel, and useless wizard student Hans – half hero, half daft laddie, powerfully played by Robert Jack.
Then there’s a handsome prince who’s a bit of a joke, and has in any case been turned into a wolf; and there’s the fantastic Little Red, aka Robin, who – as played by Dawn Sievewright – emerges as the show’s real hero. The plot, in other words, is a bit of a mess, and many other aspects of the show – from the haphazard audience participation to the lack of really good jokes, satirical or otherwise – fall far below perfection.
Yet even if the storyline fails to live up to the challenge – reducing the impact of a genuine watershed moment in Scottish mainstream panto, as the final walkdown features a sudden gay wedding – this remains a completely joyous, high-spirited family entertainment, with luscious low-budget sets by Karen Tennant, some impressive work from the MacRobert’s 15-strong teams of young performers, and outstanding choreography by Karen Martin, to a noisy rock score of current hits.
At Dundee, meanwhile, the Rep Ensemble sink their well-practised teeth into yet another of their Christmas series of Roald Dahl stories, reviving Stuart Paterson’s version of George’s Marvellous Medicine, the tale of how poor little George – stuck on the family farm with his vile old grandmother – decides to spike grandma’s medicine with everything he can find. The problem with this Dahl story, as with so many others, is twofold. First, it has absolutely nothing to do with Christmas, or with any kind of festive spirit – quite the reverse. And then secondly, the story is so brief that it seriously resists the effort to transform it into a full-length show, even with director Joe Douglas throwing every theatrical device in the book at it.
So Rebekah Lumsden’s gorgeous George has a group of weird blue inner selves in sky-coloured bodysuits, who help him in his nefarious plans. There’s a spectacular skeletal farmhouse set by Ana Ines Jabares-Pita, and terrific stylised farm animals dotted around the stage against a field of light brilliantly orchestrated by Mark Doubleday.
And there’s some wonderful acting, not least from the astonishing Ann Louise Ross, who – whether sitting in her armchair or towering over the roof, after a dose of George’s medicine – manages to make horrible grandma by far the most interesting character on stage.
In truth, though, the plot is so slim that much of the dialogue seems like padding; and what’s left is an effective one-hour non-seasonal children’s show, uneasily expanded to an hour and three-quarters, including an interval.
*Both shows run until 31 December