Theatre reviews: Sinbad the Sailor, Perth Theatre | A Christmas Carol, Pitlochry Festival Theatre

In Perthshire, beavers are controversial; conservationists love them, farmers often aren’t so sure.  Like all the best pantos, though, this year’s Sinbad at Perth Theatre knows how to side with the little guy, and win the audience’s support; and as soon as we hear Helen Logan – as gorgeous wicked villainess Vindicta – railing against the little river rodents with the big buck teeth, we know that the beavers, played by a terrific team of six young dancers from Perth’s junior company, will be working with the good guys, against Vindicta’s preferred future of endless riverside mall developments.
A Christmas Carol at Pitlochry Festival TheatreA Christmas Carol at Pitlochry Festival Theatre
A Christmas Carol at Pitlochry Festival Theatre

Sinbad the Sailor, Perth Theatre ****A Christmas Carol, Pitlochry Festival Theatre ****

Enter our heroine in the shape of Vindicta’s stepdaughter Greta, a strangely recognisable wee eco-warrior with pigtails; and in no time we’re into Greta’s kayak made from discarded plastic bottles, and down to the fair city of Perthepolis, where Greta finds allies in gorgeous Dame Jackie Alltrades – played with flair by the mighty Barrie Hunter, who also writes and directs the show – and her two children Sinbad, a retired young female adventurer, and Finlad, a bookish boy.

Dame Jackie is pro-beaver (cue rude jokes) because she has realised she can improve her straitened finances by running tourist trips to Beaver Bay on the Tay; but the evil Vindicta has other ideas.

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Cue a rollicking marine adventure involving Dame Jackie’s rickety houseboat, and no end of entertaining nonsense.

There are familiar pop songs used to brilliant effect under Alan Penman’s musical direction, dozens of cheeky jokes, and no embarrassing romance at all, as Sinbad and Greta become the best of pals. Otherwise, though, this is a clever 21st century panto full of joy and rebellious energy, which fully honours the great pantomime tradition; both in featuring a terrific, gloriously-outfitted Dame at the centre of the action, and in finishing with a rousing song-sheet contest that has Perth Theatre’s gorgeous little Edwardian auditorium rocking on its 120-year-old foundations.

If the River Tay looms large in this season’s Perth panto, it also seems set to play a major role in the next three years at Pitlochry Festival Theatre, which has just announced its 2020 season, including a new David Greig play about the Tay’s Pictish history, and a series of related  commissions stretching into 2021-22. There’s no talk of the Tay, though, in this year’s Pitlochry Christmas show, a slightly clumsy but intriguing version of A Christmas Carol written by Isobel McArthur, of the brilliant young Glasgow company Blood Of The Young.

In truth, there’s something slightly frustrating about McArthur’s short adaptation, which cuts some key aspects of the story, while sometimes indulging in wordy and over-explicit additional scenes about concepts like “the deserving poor”; it’s as if McArthur wanted to write an extended critique of Dickens’s notion that the ills of capitalism can somehow be resolved by individual charity, but had neither the space nor the context to do it.

Yet Ben Occhipinti’s production - with fascinating streetwise design by Anna Orton, featuring a mix of period and contemporary costume, and powerful use of looming brutalist street lamps – nonetheless delivers a fiercely interesting version of the story, with fine performances from Ali Watt and Emilie Patry as Bob Cratchit and his wife, heartbroken by their struggle to make ends meet, and to afford medical treatment for their sick child.  

At the centre of it all, Colin McCredie’s Scrooge often looks more bewildered and apprehensive than single-mindedly hard-hearted.

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Yet his eventual conversion to life, love and joy is thoroughly touching; and with the rest of the cast forming a seven-piece street band under Rob Hiley’s musical direction, and pouring out rough-edged and rousing versions of almost a dozen familiar carols, Dickens’s story works its magic in the end, and has the audience cheering this young Pitlochry company to the echo, as they march away through the audience, singing as they go. Joyce McMillan

Sinbad is at Perth Theatre until 4 January; A Christmas Carol is at Pitlochry Festival Theatre until 23 December