Theatre review: Sleepin' Cutie | The Lying Bitch and the Wardrobe

OH YES IT IS! Oh naw it isnae! That's right, it's another panto season in Scotland; and it's probably a measure of the rude health of the Scottish panto scene '“ and the fact that we can take so many thriving traditional pantos for granted '“ that the first two shows of the season belong fairly and squarely to the meta-panto genre that has flourished in Scotland ever since the 1980s, when Alan Cumming and Forbes Masson started to make hay with traditional panto stories in their brilliantly satirical Tron Christmas shows.

Helen McAlpine is Queen McMeanie in Sleepin' Cutie

Macrobert, Stirling ****

Oran Mor, Glasgow ****

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He is also, though, the presiding genius of panto at the Macrobert; and this year, as writer, he provides a version of Sleeping Beauty, Sleepin’ Cutie, that’s sharp, fast-moving and radical enough –in Julie Ellen’s fine production – to raise some lusty laughs, as Kara Swinney’s lovely, determined Princess Bonnie learns that the Prince isn’t always Mr Right, and that if you want to find true love’s kiss, you might have to turn to – well – your familiar family Jester, who has loved you ever since you were kids together.

It’s around award-winning actor Robbie Jack’s pitch-perfect performance as Jester that the Stirling show truly revolves this year; not because he dominates it, but because his pitch-perfect timing and effortless bond with the audience provide the foundation around which all the rest of the madness can whirl.

Like any Johnny McKnight panto, this one shows a powerful obsession with popular culture and modern celebrity cults, with Bonnie’s uncaring mother – and her evil sister, Queenie McMeanie – both obsessing about their relationship with the media, played by two brilliant alternating teams of teenagers from the MacRobert’s youth programme.

There’s also terrific whole-cast choreography from Karen Martin, and an excellent young Dame in Keith McLeish, as Jester’s Mum Fairy B. In the end, though, it’s the true friendship between Bonnie and Jester, gradually transforming into love, that gives the show its magic. It ensures that by the time we reach the final scene, the theatre is alive with the sound of little boys and girls in the audience yelling “Just Kiss Her!” at their friend Jester, in anticipation of the story’s right and true happy ending.

At Oran Mor, meanwhile, the cast of The Lying Bitch And The Wardrobe are barely on stage before they’re assuring us in a merry opening number that panto isn’t just for kids any more, and plunging into a spot of cheeky political satire from the pen of A Play, A Pie And A Pint’s joint artistic director, Morag Fullarton. Confusingly, the show is not a satirical version of the CS Lewis classic, but more of a Snow White story, in which wicked new elected leader Evil-Yin (she’s been manipulating public opinion via the media) takes against our lovely heroine Rosie, Dame Beanie’s daughter, when she finds that the man she has her eye on – local pop star Handsome Jack – is already in love with Rosie.

It’s a storyline that makes room for plenty of satire about the world’s new wave of dangerous populist leaders, as this one goes around banning singing (“she’s closed down all the music venues!”) and even – horrors – threatening a future without pies. With the heroic Rosie in rebel mode, though, the Evil-Yin barely stands a chance; and with Hannah Howie’s Rosie, John Kielty’s Jack, Maureen Carr’s Evil-Yin and Dave Anderson’s brilliant Dame Beanie all acting and singing their stripey socks off, this sold-out show powers along to a merry conclusion, marred only by a feeble closing song-sheet that hardly does justice to Fullarton’s memorably witty script, and a cast who match it for wit and wisdom, every step of the way. - Joyce McMillan