There comes a point, in Gordon Barr’s glorious 2019 panto for the Byre Theatre, when Alan Steele’s Mother Goose announces to the company that it’s all getting a bit like a bad production of Into The Woods, Stephen Sondheim’s musical featuring a radical take on traditional fairytale characters. And she is right, in all but one detail; because the show under way at the Byre is not bad, but rather one of the brightest, funniest and most thoughtful brand-new pantomimes to grace the Scottish stage for a year or two – and that in a field where the competition from rival radical panto-makers is nothing if not fierce.
Mother Goose, Byre Theatre, St Andrews ***** Jack And the Beanstalk, Adam Smith Theatre, Kirkcaldy *** So at the Byre, we have a Mother Goose story that emerges both with a hint of Into The Woods – she presides over a house full of orphan fairytale characters, most of them brilliantly played by members of the Byre’s young company – and also as a sequel to The Snow Queen. Long ago, it emerges, Mammy Goose was that same little Gerda who travelled to the North Pole to save her friend Kai from the clutches of the wicked Snow Queen, and must now do battle with her again.
Add some breathtakingly clever song rewrites – including an inspired version of She Had It Coming, from Chicago, in which five pantomime villainesses put their case against the soppy heroines with whom they have to deal – and some outrageously smart and effective choreography for the whole 11-strong company by Stephen Arden (who also plays the Snow Queen), and you have a show that has the audience cheering their approval at the end of each musical number, and also boasts a strong story, well worth their attention.
Of all the strange marriages in Scottish panto-land, the one between the Byre Theatre and Gordon Barr’s Bard In The Botanics team from Glasgow is perhaps the most unexpected. This year, though, it bears some very fine fruit indeed; and if Bard regulars Stephanie McGregor and Robert Elkin are in fine form as Little Red Riding Hood and Bruce The Goose, Alan Steele is a simply radiant Mother Goose, producing one of those rare panto performances that combines sheer, rude hilarity with real emotional depth, and even a tasty Christmas morsel of food for thought.
In Kirkcaldy, meanwhile, Imagine Theatre present an overlong but enjoyable version of Jack And The Beanstalk, written by Iain Lauchlan and directed by Marie Cowieson. On the downside, Lauchlan’s version of the familiar story moves through the narrative at a stodgy pace, with key moments often delayed or interrupted by overwritten and strangely-placed comic interludes, some of them none too funny; and although the show boasts an excellent David Rankine as the giant’s henchman Fleshcreep, Martin Murphy in fine form as Jack’s Instagram-influencer wee brother Willie Trot, and a lovely princess in Charis Murray, some of the rest of the cast seem a shade hesitant, and slow to build a bond with Kirkcaldy’s world-class panto audience.
On the upside, though, this is a version of Jack And The Beanstalk that looks exactly as it should, with lovely village square and giant’s castle sets, a singing beanstalk, and a terrific giant, whose first appearance draws shrieks of delight from the audience.
If the pace is poor, the spirit is strong; and although this is not the most thrilling of Scotland’s pantos, it’s certainly one of the merriest, with a cast that includes some elegant and sassy junior fairies, and a final song-sheet helped along in style by five tiny volunteers from the audience. Joyce McMillan
Both shows run until 4 January.