Time was when the great Scottish meta-panto was a thing of wit and wonder; a chance to take the traditional, subversive panto form and work it up into a hilarious festive entertainment for grown-ups, with a real twist of hard-hitting satire.
Ali Bawbag and the Four Tealeafs
Oran Mor, Glasgow
The Little Mermaid
Tron Theatre, Glasgow
These days, though, it seems this particular Christmas tradition is losing its bite; and at Oran Mor, the MacRobert and the Tron this year there is disappointment for those looking for a well-turned script, a well-told tale, and a real sense of panto’s power to conjure up a once-a-year-day revolution against all the world’s injustices.
By far the most likeable show of these three – and the one that makes the most gallant effort at satire – is Oran Mor’s Ali Bawbag and the Four Tealeafs, in which Frances Thorburn, as hard-up Ali, and David Anderson, in gorgeous Dame gear as his wife Daisy, stand up for the poor of the Earth against Ali’s obnoxious rich brother Jack, played with flair by Anita Vettesse.
There are some delicious moments here – particularly when tall villain George Drennan sashays on as Jack’s bling-loving trophy wife – and the script, by Anderson and Gary McNair, is rich in humorous detail. The plot, though, has nothing much to say about the gap between rich and poor, except that wealth is not happiness; and after 75 minutes it simply shudders to a halt in the middle of the story, with a final perfunctory chorus of Money Is The Root Of All Evil, to send us on our way.
At the MacRobert, meanwhile, the current king of the modern Scottish panto, Johnny McKnight, has a go – as writer, director and star – at the story of The Little Mermaid, in a show that offers the usual MacRobert hallmarks of a great collective performance from the MacBob’s youth theatre actors, and some stunning dame costumes for McKnight, who plays both the heroine’s lovely if lustful Mum, Marina, and her evil aunt, Ursula, all octopus tentacles and evil schemes.
The trouble is, though, that all the checks and balances of the panto mixture seem out of kilter this year. Half-a-dozen fart jokes in a panto are fine, but one every minute seems plain obsessional; one reference to the fact that the Dame also wrote the show is funny, six are boring. And although McKnight whips the show up to a heartwarming showbiz conclusion, it mainly seems a shade lost, short on its usual rich range of local references, and just a bit of a mess.
As for the Tron’s Sleeping Betty – well, the Tron is the theatre that gave birth to Tartania, the spoof version of Scotland where Forbes Masson used to set his meta-pantos; but now, thanks to writer David Ireland and director/designer Kenny Miller, we’re in Pantalooneyland, where nothing means anything much, except that lots of Scottish thesps like to camp around in tight-fitting lycra, cracking in-jokes about being a Scottish thesp.
Amy Scott, as Princess Betty, turns in a likeable performance, and there’s a brief effort, towards the end, to run a plot-line about how Darren Brownlie’s super-camp prince is really half-ogre, and should not be a victim of prejudice. By and large, though, this year’s panto at the Tron is accompanied by long, low sucking sound; and I fear it’s the sound of the great age of the Scottish meta-panto disappearing up its own boomps-a-daisy, never to be seen again.
Ali Bawbag and the Four Tealeafs until 23 December; The Little Mermaid until 3 January; Sleeping Betty until 3 January.