Cinderella, Perth Theatre ****
Jamie and the Unicorn, Gaiety Theatre, Ayr ****
Oh yes it is! After all the sorrow and separation of the last two years, it’s panto time again, in Scotland’s theatres, and there’s no doubting the joy of performers and audiences alike at this happy family reunion – not least at Perth Theatre and Ayr Gaiety, two theatres that have always played a key role in sustaining the Scottish pantomime tradition, perhaps because the size of the communities they serve helps emphasise its strong local dimension.
There’s certainly no doubt about the local origins of Barrie Hunter’s new version of Cinderella, at Perth Theatre. In this retelling of the story, set in Edwardian times, Cinderella’s destiny is not so much to marry a handsome prince, as to win back the inheritance of which she has been cheated by her wicked stepmother and her two horrible stepsisters, Bella and Ella; not a cash fortune, but the ownership of a beloved family emporium in Perth, and the chance to lead the business in a far more enlightened style.
Cue a fascinating new take on the story, all set by designer Becky Minto in glittering suffragette colours of green, purple and white, that often seems as much about workers’ rights and decent employment as it is about a night at the ball, and that gives a hugely talented professional and community cast – led by Hunter himself as Ugly Sister Bella – ample opportunity to belt out witty and cunning new versions of hit songs, including a fairly unforgettable Perthshire version of Voulez-Vous Coucher Avec Moi, retitled “Voulez-Vous Danser Avec Moi – In Perth”.
The traditional romantic magic of the story is sometimes in slightly short supply. Yet the wit, energy and good-hearted power of the show is irresistible, as is its bold willingness to give a completely fresh twist to an old patriarchal tale. And when Bella finally appears in front of the curtain during the pre-ball interlude to ask the audience whether it isn’t great to be back together in the theatre again, Perth roars its approval, in no uncertain terms.
Ayr Gaiety, meanwhile, has been even bolder, in that its panto director Ken Alexander – with co-writer Fraser Boyle and composer David Higham – has created an entirely new pantomime tale for a 21st-century Ayrshire Christmas, Jamie and the Unicorn. The story – told over 90 minutes without an interval – centres on an Ayrshire girl called Jamie, who sees a unicorn one day, in the woods of Alloway. Many people don’t believe her but the good fairy Ana Maw and the wicked witch Gowdie Banadook both understand the importance of what has happened, and a battle ensues to find the unicorn again, without helping Gowdie to track it down and kill it for its magic horn, which will make her the most powerful sorceress in Scotland.
The idea is that Jamie is the girl with enough love and courage in her heart to bring the unicorns back to Ayrshire. If the panto has a flaw, it’s that it lacks a back-story that would make it clear why the unicorns’ presence might matter. Yet Ken Alexander’s production boasts a dedicated and talented cast, led by wonderful singer and actress Kirsty Findlay as Jamie, that worked their way through an opening weekend assault-course of non-Covid illness to deliver a lovely and original show, featuring a fine playlist of new songs, and powerful supporting performances from Gavin Jon Wright as Jamie’s daft brother, and Chris Forbes as her mum, the irrepressible Dame Jinty McGuffie.
Cinderella at Perth Theate until 30 December; Jamie And The Unicorn at the Gaiety Theatre, Ayr until 24 December
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