Theatre reviews: Kinky Boots, Playhouse, Edinburgh | Aladdin, King’s Theatre, Glasgow

Paula Lane plays Lauren
Paula Lane plays Lauren
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AT FIRST glance, it’s not the most obvious choice for a Christmas show: the musical of the 2005 film, loosely based on a true story, about a failing Northampton shoe factory that’s saved from closure when its new owner Charlie – the fourth generation of his family to run the business – moves into the niche market of making glamorous high-heeled boots and shoes for drag queens, who often find female shoes too small and fragile.

Kinky Boots, Playhouse, Edinburgh ****

George Drennan, Johnny Mac and Elaine C Smith are magnificent in a very fine traditional panto

George Drennan, Johnny Mac and Elaine C Smith are magnificent in a very fine traditional panto

Aladdin, King’s Theatre, Glasgow ****

Yet around this left-field tale of 21st century industrial regeneration, the top writing team of Harvey Fierstein (book) and Cyndi Lauper (music & lyrics) conjure up a compelling tale of two sons in rebellion against their fathers, who find that they can both find new and more fulfilling futures by joining forces in an inspired creative partnership.

The one who gains most in this process is the reluctant entrepreneur Charlie, played in slightly muted style by Joel Harper-Jackson. Forced to take over the business after his Dad’s sudden death, Charlie is also compelled – in the end – to reconsider his relationship with his upwardly-mobile fiancée Nicola, who prefers big bucks to duty and creativity.

There are also gains, though, for the shimmering star of the show, Lola, stunningly played by the magnificent Kayi Ushe; the London drag queen and cabaret singer whom Charlie tries to rescue from a beating up, and who both inspires his new line of business, and becomes its chief designer, gradually opening up, in the process, about his unhappy childhood, and the father who bullied him relentlessly for his interest in cross-dressing.

Add a playlist of loud, heartstring-twanging show songs of the kind Lola loves to sing, a couple of witty narrative numbers including Lola’s The Sex Is In The Heel, some sharp choreography by director Jerry Mitchell, and a lushly emotional storyline that ends with a predictably sparkling Union Jack triumph at a footwear fashion show in Milan, and you have an exhilarating show for Christmas; one that not only allows the audience to get on side with two very different characters trying to find themselves in a complex world, but also throws some light on the current British clash between the real, creative economy and mere property speculation, while bathing the audience in as much glamour and glitter as even a Christmas crowd could wish for.

At the King’s in Glasgow, meanwhile, there’s a bit of glamour but also loads of down-to-earth family fun, in an Aladdin that starts as it means to go on, when we enter the King’s foyer to find Widow Twanky’s washing hanging above our heads, her bloomers bobbing gloriously in the updraught. As family pantomimes go, this one – starring Elaine C Smith as Twanky and Johnny Mac as her hopeless son Wishee Washee, and directed by Nigel West for the Qdos panto company – is simply the show with everything, from a terrific comic leading lady in magnificent voice (not least in her eye-popping version of Beyonce’s All The Single Ladies), through some fine comedy sequences (also featuring Paul-James Corrigan as a grumpy palace guard), to a great villain Abanazar in George Drennan, and Frances Mayli McCann as a world-beating Princess Jasmine, who not only sings brilliantly, but gives great slapstick comedy, and finally seizes a sword to fight Abanazar herself.

In the end, though, any panto as successful as this one is an ensemble effort; and this one features a cast of eight along with eight dancers, some brilliant young performers from the Vivace Theatre School, and a five-piece orchestra. There’s loads of audience participation, plenty of Glasgow jokes, gorgeous little kids on stage trying to say “Three smart fellas, they felt smart” without uttering anything rude, a song-sheet to bring the house down, and a walk-down finale as stupidly fancy as anything you’ll ever see in panto-land; all of which is just as it should be, in what’s probably Scotland’s finest traditional panto of the year so far.

JOYCE MCMILLAN

Kinky Boots runs until 5 January; Aladdin until 6 January.