One of the great roles of panto, in the age of globalised culture, is to celebrate the joys of local community life; and I doubt whether any panto in Scotland does it better than the annual Christmas knees-up at the Brunton in Musselburgh, a show so brim full of East Lothian identity, jokes and fun that there’s hardly time to notice the sad absence of the handmade panto backdrops of local scenes that once used to grace the stage – including the one featuring the distant outline of the now demolished Cockenzie power station.
Brunton Theatre, Musselburgh
Snow White ****
What we have in Aladdin, though, is a hand-crafted story by writer and director Mark Cox in which Aladdin – a combination of hero and daft laddie played in fine style by Martin Murphy – proudly proclaims himself Aladdin McFadyen from Musselburgh, the genie of the lamp is soon revealed as an East Lothian lad just trying to talk like a genie should, and Keith McLeish’s brilliant Widow Twankey dismisses the Cave of No Return as no more scary than a Saturday night out in Tranent.
The story is rough and ready, no question; the cast is so small that the Emperor and the genie can never be on stage together, the sets are basic, and the whole show last well under two hours. Yet the tiny chorus of Musselburgh kids sing and dance their hearts out; and the stage fairly bursts with panto spirit, as East Lothian celebrates itself and Christmas, in a a merry final burst of song and laughter.
There’s something to celebrate, too, at the Britannia Panopticon in Glasgow, the UK’s oldest surviving music hall. Long left in a state of neglect, this wonderful building in the Trongate is gradually being brought back to life by a dedicated group of volunteers; and this Christmas, as part of their fundraising effort, they’re staging the Panopticon’s first pantomime since 1938, in the shape of a messy but exuberant Aladdin, written and directed by – and starring – Grant F Kidd, who, among all his other gifts, is one of Scotland’s finest pantomime dames, graced with a terrific set of Widow Twanky outfits, including a dress apparently made entirely of soap bubbles.
This is essentially an amateur show, with a hugely variable range of performance, and a some rocky, under-rehearsed moments. Apart from the magnificent Kidd, though, it has a lovely, non-submissive princess in Meredith Joy Robinson, and a cast that makes brilliant use of the diverse community around the Tron, featuring two young Glasgow Greek actors as Aladdin and Abanazar. Audiences should wrap up warm, though; a plan to install some much-needed heating in the Panopticon is one of the main reasons for the current funding drive.
Meanwhile, at Cumbernauld, Ed Robson’s company this year delivers the real deal, in a beautifully-shaped small-scale show that is particularly brilliant for primary-age children but should also provide a gorgeous hour or two of panto fun for the whole family. The story – written by Robson with Roderick Stewart – is an updated version of Snow White, in which the wicked stepmother is a fashion-obsessed Botox queen who does not like to be reminded that she is 1,000 years old, and the seven dwarfs (briefly dismissed as a bunch of old-fashioned stereotypes who used to live in the same cottage) are replaced by Hamish and Hamish, two jolly treasure-hunting brothers with a metal detector.
The result is a simple but perfectly pitched fairytale for our times, featuring outstanding performances from Rehanna Macdonald as a loving and spirited Snow White, Louise Stewart as an evil and gorgeous wicked queen, Gavin Wright and Josh Whitelaw in fine form as the two Hamishes, and a hilariously posh and put-upon Ali Watt as the queen’s magic mirror.
And the whole show offers an object lesson in the truth that what matters most in theatre is story and acting; and that those vital ingredients –plus a few simple props and some magical lighting – are all you need to extract maximum impact from one of the most vivid stories in the whole pantosphere.
*Aladdin at the Brunton until 31 December; Aladdin at the Panopticon until tomorrow; Snow White at Cumbernauld Theatre until 24 December. Donations to the Panopticon restoration fund can be made at www.britanniapanopticon.org