Theatre reviews: Maw Goose | Santa’s Little Astronaut

Theatre-goers may have to walk a bit further than usual to get to the Macrobert these days, but this year’s Christmas shows are worth the effort, writes Joyce McMillan

Maw Goose, Macrobert, Stirling ****

Santa’s Little Astronaut, Macrobert, Stirling ****

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Snow had fallen, snow on snow, at the Macrobert Arts Centre over the weekend; and the powers that be at Stirling University have recently rearranged the campus so that the theatre’s main door has no vehicle access, leading to the poignant sight of tiny tots hiking hundreds of yards to and from the car park, through deep snow, in their wee wellies.

Maw Goose at the Macrobert

Once they arrive at the theatre, though, it’s all warmth and laughter, in a fine pair of Christmas shows curated by the theatre’s artistic director Julie Ellen, and in the case of the main stage panto Maw Goose, also directed by her. Mother Goose is in some ways the queen of pantos, the story in which the Dame herself becomes the central character, undergoing a dramatic emotional journey from cheerful poverty, to cruel wealth and vanity, and back to her own true self again; and in this fine Johnny McKnight version of the story – in which Maw Goose runs the Stirling Stella panto academy for local kids – it’s told with a panache and passion born of the age of Instagram and Botox, when all women, and some men, are supposed to yearn for a cosmetic makeover.

All of this is gorgeously realised in the Macrobert’s 2022 panto, not least through a star-is-born performance by Brian James O’Sullivan as Maw Goose, giving us his first-ever Stirling dame in a hilarious but elegant style, with notably smashing legs, that vividly recalls great, stylish Scottish Dames of the past, from Stanley Baxter to Walter Carr. Add a fistful of fine performances from Helen McAlpine as wicked villain Narcissa, Amy Conachan and Malcolm Cumming as Jack and Jill, Kyle Gardiner as daft laddie Gary, and Olivia Adams as Fairy Liqui-Tap, and the main narrative is in excellent hands; creating a strong framework for Stirling’s brilliant young team of supporting performers, playing everyone from Narcissa’s familiar demons (a cynical bunch) to the trainee panto stars in Maw Goose’s school.

There are also fine, witty sets and costumes by Fraser Lappin and Alisa Kalyanova, and a terrific score of familiar pop hits, designed by musical director Alan Penman and choreographer Kristopher Bosch to create show-stopping numbers full of movement and joy. Highlights include a conscience-stricken Maw Goose’s stunning transformation into Cher, belting out If I Could Turn Back Time; and of course the indispensable finale of any Johnny McKnight panto, All I Want For Christmas Is You, belted out by the whole cast amid an all-dancing torrent of glitter, happiness, and festive fun.

In the Macrobert studio, meanwhile, younger audiences are enjoying an unusually exciting tiny tots’ Christmas show in Andy McGregor’s play with songs Santa’s Little Astronaut, set aboard a ramshackle space station which has been pressed into service as Santa’s toy factory. In charge is astronaut Toni Tinsel, played alternately by Lois Craig and Colum Findlay, who together with a friendly robot is in charge of pressing all the buttons that ensure the presents are made and wrapped, and sent down the transporter to Santa, in time for Christmas.

The drama begins when the machines break down, so that various little helpers from the audience have to join Toni on stage as they work out how to make the remaining toys Santa needs, while the rest of the audience helps them along, and keeps reminding Toni to recharge the space station’s power supply by winding a big handle. The audience participation is therefore fast, furious, and hugely satisfying, as are the songs and Gillian Argo’s jolly spaceship set; and for children aged between two and five, it’s hard to imagine a more enjoyable 50 minutes of Christmas fun, full of colour and incident, and with a powerful storyline driving the action to a thoroughly happy ending.

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Both shows run until 31 December.