Allan Stewart’s Big, Big Variety Show, King’s Theatre, Edinburgh ****
The band strikes up, the lights swirl, and out he runs, belting out an upbeat showbiz number, setting the scene. It’s the remarkable Allan Stewart, Edinburgh’s much loved pantomime dame for more than 20 years now, and all-round entertainer extraordinary for six decades; and also, at least once a year, producer of this remarkable Edinburgh tribute to the old variety tradition, co-hosted by Stewart’s pantomime partner Grant Stott.
This year’s Big, Big Variety Show will be the last before the King’s closes for a massive two-year rebuilding programme; it’s also the first since the death last year of Andy Gray, the inspired actor and comedian who was the third member of Edinburgh’s indispensable panto trio. The show therefore features a slight sense of nostalgia, and an extended second-half item built around dozens of old photographs and video clips of Andy Gray on stage and backstage, while Stewart and Stott reminisce about their laughter-filled working relationship with him.
Mostly, though, this year’s show is about loads of fun, delivered with terrific pizzazz and polish by Stewart and Stott, their guest stars, and the impressive eight-strong Andy Pickering Orchestra. This year’s guests are lovely singer Nicola Meehan, inspired young ventriloquist Max Fulham, and four game guys in cherry pink blazers delivering a Jerseys Boys tribute act, called Big Men In Town. Stewart and Stott’s own material ranges from another run-in with their joke Scottish folk singers the McRobert Brothers, to a spoof celebrity interview between Stott and an indomitable Edinburgh spinster with a startlingly racy approach to life.
If the stereotypes are old, though, most of the jokes are fresh and funny, sometimes soaring off into flights of linguistic absurdism that have the audience almost helpless with laughter. In troubled times, this is exactly the kind of evening of daft laughter, laced with good music and a little genuine sentiment, that most of us badly need; and this year, Stewart and friends deliver it with some style, and a genuine good humour that soothes the heart.
The atmosphere at the King’s will be very different next week, when the theatre hosts the current UK touring production of The Da Vinci Code, a play by Rachel Wagstaff and Duncan Abel based on Dan Brown’s blockbusting 2003 novel. Brown’s book is of course no more than a well-turned thriller, with a slightly portentous tone. Yet its central idea – that Christ and Mary Magdalene might have had children, whose secret bloodline survives to this day – was controversial enough to appeal to conspiracy theorists and to offend some Christian groups; and the book’s fame certainly encouraged a minor tourist boom around Roslin Chapel near Edinburgh, one of its key locations.
The current stage version boasts a beautiful set by David Woodhead – a gilded dark blue space dominated by Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man – along with a neatly trimmed version of the story, and a pair of effective central performances from Nigel Harman as the American academic Robert Langdon, who first uncovers the mystery, and Hannah Rose Caton as Sophie, the French police cryptologist who turns out to have a unique personal stake in the story. Their best efforts, though, can’t quite conceal the general daftness of Dan Brown’s story, and its underlying lack of weight; a quality that live theatre tends to expose over an hour or two, so that the audience is left both admiring the show’s professionalism, and wondering why it exists at all.
Allan Stewart’s Big, Big Variety Show is at the King’s, Edinburgh until 2 April; The Da Vinci Code is at the Theatre Royal, Glasgow, until 2 April, the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, from 5-9 April, and His Majesty’s, Aberdeen, from 19-23 July.
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