Theatre reviews: Olive the Other Reindeer | Robin Hood | Enormous Christmas Turnip | Bairns in the Wood

A good Christmas show should have five special ingredients, writes Joyce McMillan, but combining them all in the right quantities can be tricky

Olive the Other Reindeer

Olive the Other Reindeer, Tron, Glasgow ***

Robin Hood, Lanternhouse, Cumbernauld ***

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Enormous Christmas Turnip, The Studio, Edinburgh ****

Robin Hood PIC: Greg Macvean

Bairns in the Wood, Howden Park, Livingston ****

Whether it’s large-scale or tiny, the perfect Christmas show always has five special ingredients: a strong story, good jokes, fine music and dance, a touch of visual magic and spectacle, and a powerful direct relationship with the audience, who play a vital part in the performance. And on my final gallop around Scotland’s 2021 pantomime scene, I’ve seen plenty of all five – although sadly not always in the same show.

Olive The Other Reindeer at the Tron, for example, is a short one-hour Christmas play by Johnny McKnight – who also appears on screen as Santa – that scores high on good looks, music and dance, but features a plot that doesn’t lend itself easily to the moral simplicities of pantomime. Set in a school for junior reindeer at the North Pole, the story tells of aspiring young reindeer Olive (All Of The Other Reindeer, geddit?), played by Julie Wilson Nimmo, who accidentally destroys Santa’s Christmas present list while trying to protect the naughty children on page one from getting no presents at all, which she thinks is harsh.

Cue absolute confusion when Olive asks the audience what she should do (no-one has a clue), and major puzzlement on the ethical question of whether naughty children should get presents or not. On the plus side, though, the show features a beautiful candy-striped and starlit set by Kenny Miller, who also directs, and some terrific new songs by musical director Ross Brown, choreographed in style by Eva Forrester, and delivered with panache by a tireless four-strong cast.

There are similar problems for the audience at Cumbernauld, where Eve Nicol’s Robin Hood features an excellent story – about a four-strong teenage girl band rebelling against the quasi-fascist corporation that runs their town – and terrific rock tunes by young composers Lauren Gilmour and Audrey Tait of Novasound, brilliantly delivered by a five-strong all-female cast.

The difficulty, though, lies in the fact that while Lauren Ellis, as the corporate villain, interacts powerfully with the audience from the outset, Robin herself never invites us into her own story, or offers the audience a positive role to play; and that retreat behind the fourth wall places severe limits on the amount of panto fun to be had, in what is otherwise a bold and fascinating show made entirely by young women – and also designed to integrate British Sign Language into its storytelling, in a range of fascinating ways.

Finally, there’s time to give a Christmas heads-up to two very different shows that both come close to ticking all five festive entertainment boxes. Ivor MacAskill and Rosanna Cade’s Enormous Christmas Turnip – playing at The Studio as part of a joint project between Capital Theatres and Scottish Theatre Producers – is a gorgeous and witty 45-minute yarn for younger children, beautifully designed by Ailie Cohen, about two rabbits who, surprised by the arrival of the audience, somehow manage to time-travel back to spring and grow a whole garden full of lovely vegetables, for our planet-friendly Christmas feast.

And writer-director Martin McCormick’s Bairns In The Woods, at Howden Park in Livingston, is a truly warm-hearted and inventive brand-new traditional panto, superbly cast, alive with brief but excellent musical numbers, and peopled by brilliantly rounded and amusing original characters who somehow seem both absolutely contemporary, and rooted deep in Scottish comedy and panto tradition. Is the show perfect? Naw. But are we having a good time? Oh yes we are – in a year when we have surely never needed it more.

Olive the Other Reindeer until 24 December; Robin Hood until 26 December; The Enormous Christmas Turnip until 31 December; Bairns In The Wood until 28 December.

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