WHAT makes a great Scottish panto star? It’s a mix of familiarity, inventiveness and sheer love for the panto tradition and live theatre, combined with a mysterious touch of magic; but whatever the formula, it’s clear from the shenanigans, ongoings and general joy of this year’s Qdos pantomime at the SEC Armadillo that Greg McHugh, better known as Gary Tank Commander, is shaping up to join the ranks of Scotland’s true panto tradition-bearers.
Snow White, SEC Armadillo, Glasgow **** | Cinderella, Cumbernauld Theatre ***
Co-written by Alan McHugh and director Jonathan Kiley, this version of Snow White admittedly offers the SEC company some fine material to work with. It looks fabulous, just as the Snow White story should, from the dwarfs’ cottage in the woods to wicked queen Lucretia’s laboratory in the palace, where she cooks up poisoned apples; and Kiley has assembled a terrific cast, which also includes Doon McKichan of Two Doors Down fame as Lucretia, comedian and actress Leah McCrae as Nanny McWee, and the fabulous Frances Thorburn – a fine actress, and seriously brilliant singer – as Snow White herself.
What’s more, every one of the cast brings a fine Glaswegian spirit to the whole story, effortlessly dropping in the geographical references to Scotland’s river city; although I suppose there is room for debate about the idea of having the seven dwarfs played (very entertainingly) by seven normally-sized actors going about on their knees with little short puppet legs, like Lord Farquaad in Shrek.
At the centre of it all, though, stands Gary, or rather Gar’eh, as he insists we all pronounce him from the start; the character Greg McHugh created for the TV comedy Gary Tank Commander, now morphing effortlessly into every daft laddie in the panto repertoire. Here, he is Nanny McWee’s useless son, the court jester; and the plot revolves merrily around him, as Lucretia tries to hypnotise him into taking Snow White into the forest, and cutting out her heart.
The result is a show that barely misses a beat, over a crisp two-and-a-half-hours; and that matches the equally excellent Jack And The Beanstalk at the King’s, in demonstrating that the Glasgow panto tradition is as rudely healthy as it has ever been, and as brilliantly studded with stars.
A few miles to the north-east, meanwhile, it’s time for a sad farewell to Cumbernauld Theatre, with its own fairytale setting behind a row of old cottages in the woods near Cumbernauld village. Founded in 1960, the theatre is home to one of the oldest producing companies in Scotland, and has been providing a mix of professional theatre and community involvement in the arts for more than half a century.
But now, it’s set to move on to a brand new building in the grounds of Cumbernauld Academy. The final Christmas production before the move – written, directed and designed by artistic director Ed Robson – is a typically bold Cumbernauld version of the Cinderella story, which adds a huge twist to the end of the tale, treating the familiar Cinders story as a flashback.
In narrative terms, the result is mixed; there’s too much boring exposition delivered in silly mannered voices, and a serious mis-step towards the end, when the retelling of the traditional story mysteriously fails to enlighten one crucial character about who are the baddies here, and who the goodies.
Yet the show also features a truly adorable Cinderella in Danielle Glover, and a memorably nasty wicked stepmother in Esme Bayley, along with a glorious sense of connection with the audience that makes it a joyful experience, and augurs well for Cumbernauld Theatre’s continuing close relationship with the community it serves, as it moves on to new times.
Snow White is at the SEC Armadillo, Glasgow, until 31 December; Cinderella is at Cumbernauld Theatre until 24 December