There’s an underlying problem in the business of festive children’s theatre in Scotland, and it boils down to this; that a generation ago, in the 1980’s, the playwright Stuart Paterson wrote a series of updated stage versions of classic fairytales so brilliant, and so magnificently balanced between serious storytelling and traditional panto fun, that it remains quite difficult, in any given year, to resist the case for just bringing them all out again, like a familiar but irreplaceably beautiful box of Christmas decorations.
Cinderella, Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow *****
A Christmas Carol, Dundee Rep ****
La Clique Noel, Festival Square, Edinburgh ***
Paterson’s 1989 version of Cinderella – which tackles the class politics of the original story head-on, but with a gorgeously light and romantic touch – is arguably the finest of them all, full of glorious panto characters from a comedy head chef known as Sergeant Puff to the lovely kitchen dog, Black Douglas; and Dominic Hill’s pitch-perfect Citizens’ production gives this magnificent Christmas show its full value, relishing every detail of a script that draws the audience into the action from the outset, and has some kids in the crowd almost storming the stage to help Sinead Sharkey’s lovely, indomitable Isabella/Cinderella in her struggle with Irene Allan’s superbly wicked stepmother, who combines a pan-loaf Kelvinside accent with cosmic levels of panto evil.
Nikola Kodjabashia’s score of beautiful tunes and clanking, banging kitchen sounds – mostly delivered live by a hugely versatile cast – adds an extra dimension of brilliance to the show; and with Hannah Howie and Caroline Deyga acting up a storm as a perfect pair of ugly sisters, and Malcolm Shields and Nicholas Ralph producing another hilarious double-act as the harmless old king and his sulky son, the stage is set for this Cinderella’s final magical moment of romance, when she heads north with the heroic kitchen-boy of her choice, towards his people who “sometimes think too much of themselves, but usually think too little”; and who sound somehow familiar.
If Cinderella, in all its forms, remains the best-loved of all Christmas fairytales, then Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol has a strong claim to be one of the greatest stories ever told; and this year, with new artistic director Andrew Panton at the helm, Dundee Rep delivers a big-stage musical version as elegant and lavish as it is brilliantly assured.
The twist in the tale, at Dundee, is that the old miser Scrooge is played as a woman, by the incomparable Ann Louise Ross; and although the shift perhaps adds an extra layer of meaning to Scrooge’s sacrifice of marriage and family for business and money, what’s most striking is how the sheer force of Dickens’s great plea for humanity overrides all human differences, and challenges everyone who has ever chosen the path of hostility and mean-spiritedness, over generosity and love.
There’s plenty of brilliant theatrical fun in Andrew Panton’s production, with flying bedsteads, flaming gravestones, and a superb ensemble of eight actors whisking us seamlessly from scene to scene on a terrific Victorian set by Richard Evans. And if the show’s musical combination of live sound and a lush, filmic recorded score sometimes leans too far towards the cinematic – and the whole show slightly tends to bathe what could be a contemporary story in comfortable Victoriana – there’s still no resisting the power of Dickens’s great vision of humanity restored, and of the love that supposedly came down at Christmas made real in our world.
It’s a different kind of love that’s on the minds of the famous La Clique burlesque ensemble, as they open their Christmas show in Edinburgh; and if their beautiful Spiegeltent in Festival Square is veiled – like too many of Edinburgh’s winter festival entertainments – in layers of ugly hoardings and outbuildings, it’s easy to forget the surroundings once we enter the rich, velvety embrace of a show that offers some real class in the shape of live music from vocalist Kelly Wolfgramm with Danny Bourne and his orchestra, and the slinky, wickedly sensual compering of Bernie Dieter. The acts – some of them familiar from previous La Clique visits to Edinburgh – range from the athletically brilliant to the thoroughly naughty; and for those of us who enjoy a bit of slick and raunchy late-night fun over the Christmas season – well, this is undoubtedly the kind of thing we like.
Cinderella at the Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow, and A Christmas Carol at Dundee Rep, both until 31 December. La Clique Noel at Festival Square, Edinburgh, until 6 January.