READY, unsteady, and they’re off. Yes, it’s the 2017 panto season; and for sheer over-the-top hilarity, it’s currently hard to beat 21st century Glasgow star Johnny McKnight’s annual Stirling panto, particularly when – as this year – he is not only writing and directing, but also appearing in person as the panto’s super-charged post-modern Dame.
Macrobert, Stirling **** | Oran Mor, Glasgow ****
This year, she’s Alice Fitzwarren-Whittington, the abundantly curvaceous and lascivious widow of long-dead hero Dick Whittington, whom she met one wild night in the 1960s, and who once drove the rats out of imaginary panto hometown Stirling Stella. The dates don’t quite work out, of course; at over 70, a Dame who was young in the Sixties could hardly have a teenage daughter like young panto heroine Chick. Yet the whole slightly debatable plot-line provides an ideal excuse for some ridiculous time-travelling shenanigans, as the whole Whittington family (including the Dame’s daft son Slick, brilliantly played by Robbie Jack) borrow a time-machine recently invented by Chick’s scientist boyfriend, and head back to what looks like a 1964 edition of Ready Steady Go, to try to prevent Dick from signing away his then non-existent children’s lives in a desperate peace deal with the Queen Rat.
In the course of this journey through time and back, a huge amount of fun is had by everyone including the audience, despite a few errors of the kind that always crop up when artists direct their own work; why wreck the show’s main piece of audience participation, for example, by giving the audience a response line that’s counter-intuitive and too hard to remember, or burden Helen McAlpine’s Queen Rat with a side-kick who plays no role in the story, and for whom you have no funny lines? As ever, though, McKnight makes a brilliant job of building the story around two alternating youth theatre casts who play useless cats, well-meaning rats, and hilariously-dressed Sixties teeny-boppers, with equal aplomb. And by the time every character has had a chance to hear what McKnight calls the “ring-a-ding ching ching thing of true love” – that universal panto sound that denotes love at first sight – everyone is thoroughly carried away on a tide of inimitable panto nonsense, to Stirling Stella, and back again.
If McKnight’s style is slightly satirical and highly nonsensical, the balance at the Play, Pie And Pint lunchtime panto for grown-ups tends to lean in the opposite direction, with lashings of political satire served up in a panto wrapping; and Morag Fullarton’s Cinderella 2: I Married A Numpty is no exception.
Panto has always been a popular form in which ordinary people become heroes, and the upper classes are at best pretty useless; so there’s plenty of scope for classic panto fun in Fullarton’s story of a Cinderella who realises, a couple of months after the wedding, that her princely husband, played with gormless flair by John Kielty, is a classic posh twit with an unpleasantly cruel streak, and who flees back to the village with her Buttons-character, a cheery soul called Buttheid.
I would like to have seen a little more of David Anderson as a matchlessly wounded and satirical Dame, a kindly auntie of Cinderella’s. Her one-liners are lethal, as she contemplates the turbulent political landscape of 2017, and says it makes her feel like “a chameleon trying to traverse a kilt.”
If this year’s Oran Mor panto seems a shade too brief for its own good, though, it’s still a thoroughly enjoyable piece of mockery, that hits the right targets with just enough festive force; and with lovely Joanne McGuinness and brilliant Clare Waugh completing the cast as Cinders and her sole remaining Ugly Sister, Wan-Tooth Winnie, there’s little to complain of in this bold sequel to the Cinderella story, and plenty to love.
Chick Whittington at the MacRobert, Stirling, and Cinderella 2: I Married A Numpty at Oran Mor, Glasgow, both until 30 December.