The Christmas theatre scene, these days, is as vast and varied as any pantomime forest; and the joyful thing about this latest burst of Christmas shows in Glasgow and Edinburgh is that it contains every possible element, from blockbuster musical to small-scale children’s show – with, in each, a little touch of magic drawn from all the others.
Black Beauty ****
Mamma Mia! *****
The Snaw Queen ****
So the Traverse’s gorgeous Black Beauty is a children’s story with a few delicious touches of traditional panto, created for the Traverse and Red Bridge by three of Scotland’s top children’s theatre makers, Andy Cannon, Andy Manley, and designer Shona Reppe. In a lay-by near the Maybury roundabout – for this is a real Edinburgh show – brothers Andy and Andy are parked up with the horse-box that contains their chum Hector. Armed with a tiny box of coco-pops, they’re trying to survive until some work comes along; but times are hard, since Hector is a pantomime horse, and most pantos, these days, seem to want Daisy the Cow.
So to while away the time, Andy and Andy start to tell their mother’s favourite story, Anna Sewell’s great tale about the often painful life of a Victorian working horse, Black Beauty.
There’s no effort to tell the whole story, in just under two hours with an interval; but what Cannon and Manley achieve to perfection is to capture the spirit of Sewell’s great cry for the wellbeing of animals, while holding the story at just enough distance to make it slightly less frightening and nightmarish than many of us found it as children. All the sadness is there, both in the original story, and in the meta-narrative of the two Andys; but so, in the complex space between, is a gentle humour that has the kids in the audience shouting with laughter, a touching human relationship beautifully realised, and a stream of inventive genius that seems like the spirit of hope itself.
Of the great Abba tribute musical Mamma Mia!, meanwhile, there is little left to say, 17 years on from its smash-hit London premiere; except that this, as scripted by Catherine Johnson, is the absolute queen of juke box shows, and the one that demonstrates just how it should be done. In this latest touring version at the Playhouse, Phyllida Lloyd’s production looks as fast-moving and brilliant as ever; and Sara Poyzer and Lucy May Baker deliver a heart-wrenchingly fine double act as the show’s heroine Donna and her daughter Sophie.
What makes Mamma Mia! such an exceptional show, though, is the sheer love and skill with which its script takes the music of Abba, and weaves it into the deep texture of a story about love, loss and romance in a post-feminist world.
And it’s this, in turn, that audiences recognise, joining in joyfully with the songs, dancing their hearts out, and roaring their approval at the end. These are levels of audience participation that any pantomime would envy; and at the deepest level, the plot-line is the same too, as love triumphs all round, and the young lovers head off, into the big wide world.
As for Johnny McKnight’s latest Tron meta-panto – well, his version of The Snow Queen certainly plays fast, loose and loud with the Hans Christian Andersen story, what with a Snow Queen who used to be Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer, and the abundant presence of McKnight’s inimitable female Santa Claus figure, Kristine Kringle.
Once Kristine appears on stage, though, this fine piece of Tron panto madness never pauses for breath, as McKnight out-Dames every other star turn on the Scottish panto stage with a stream of lethal Donald Trump jokes, and gently steers Julie Nimmo – as Olive the other reindeer, geddit? – into her central role as the shy protagonist who discovers unknown inner strengths.
There’s plenty of razor-sharp dialogue, loads of pound-shop dazzle in Kenny Miller’s design, and a truly brilliant comic musical sequence set in the Glasgow Subway; in a panto that shows a formidable grasp of the essentials of the art-form, while transforming them in ways that have the audience shrieking with laughter, and cheering the six-strong cast to the echo.
*Black Beauty until 24 December, Mamma Mia! and The Snaw Queen until 7 January.