It’s a strange old Christmas dish, pantomime. Sometimes all the best ingredients can be assembled and given a good stir. Yet still the mixture never quite reaches the temperature that would transform it into a festive treat; and something like that happens to this year’s Qdos Cinderella at the SEC Armadillo, which has possibly the most star-studded cast in the whole Scottish pantosphere but somehow delivers a slightly muted and chilly evening of fun.
Cinderella, SEC, Glasgow ***
Jack and the Beanstalk, Eden Court Theatre, Inverness ****
At the centre of the SEC mix stand the Krankies, in terrific form; it’s astonishing, given their five decades (and more) of service to the business, to see Ian and Janette expending so much sheer physical energy and comic skill on the roles of Baron Hardup and Buttons, as if the idea of Cinderella’s cash-strapped Dad, and the wee kitchen-boy madly in love with the boss’s youngest daughter, had only just been invented. This Cinderella also boasts much-loved Any Dream Will Do star Keith Jack as Prince Charming, a pair of top-flight Ugly Sisters in Gavin Mitchell and Jonathan Watson, a gorgeous Fairy Godmother in silver-voiced Glasgow singing star Frances Thorburn and a thoroughly likeable and talented Cinderella in Gemma Lawson, as well as an eight-strong dancing chorus and some great kids from the Jazzaturk College of Performing Arts.
Yet for all that, it often comes across as a panto without a leading character whose job it is to draw the audience in and make them feel involved. The Ugly Sisters can’t do it because, unlike most panto dames, they are baddies. Jack can’t do it, in best John Barrowman style, because, as ever in panto, Prince Charming is an underwritten role; The Krankies can’t do it because their comedy is all about moral ambivalence; and Cinderella can’t do it because she is as underwritten as her prince.
Add a brisk two-and-a-quarter hour format that leaves little time for traditional panto pleasures such as a slapstick scene or the old “Oh-no-you-don’t” and you have a production, by Jonathan Kiley, oddly lacking in warmth and joy; although it’s not impossible that, by the end of the run, this gifted panto team will have waved a magic wand and somehow ensured that this frustrating panto mixture is finally done to a turn.
Slightly similar problems haunt this year’s Jack and the Beanstalk at Eden Court in Inverness, although hard work by the cast – and by some small participants from the audience during the final sing-song – finally delivers a panto experience cheering enough to send us out happily into the night.
Working not with Qdos but with Imagine Theatre, a UK-wide company with a more traditional approach to panto, Eden Court’s panto champion Steven Wren writes, directs and stars in a lovely-looking Jack and the Beanstalk, in which Inverness panto star Ross Allan plays Jack as both daft laddie and a slightly ambiguous romantic hero, opposite Jennifer Neil’s dynamic, competent and thoroughly admirable Princess Jill, with a Lulu-style voice to die for.
Despite all the advantages of this panto, including an 11-foot giant who actually makes a full appearance, there are problems with the script and with Wren’s oddly muted performance as Dame Trot that sometimes make it difficult for the audience to get involved; it’s never a good idea to give the villain’s henchman most of the comic lines, particularly when some of them are complicated political jokes about Donald Trump and the joys of Brexit.
In the end, though, some powerful work from the six-strong ensemble and from the young team of assorted beans and extras bring this Jack and the Beanstalk to a rousing conclusion; in a production where the stars sometimes seem out of alignment, but a strong sense of community, in the panto village of Heedrum Hodrum, finally wins through. - Joyce McMillan
Cinderella is at the SEC, Glasgow, until 30 December. Jack is and the Beanstalk at Eden Court Theatre, Inverness, until 6 January.