THIS year’s Scottish panto season is full of original takes on traditional fairytales, from Snow White threatened by fracking-induced earthquakes at Perth, to Johnny McKnight’s gay-romance Mammy Goose at the Tron. Yet even in such a strong field, the latest Bard In The Botanics pantomime at the Byre in St Andrews, written and directed by the inimitable Gordon Barr, gives the familiar story of Sleeping Beauty a workout so vigorous that it leaves the audience with barely a clue what’s going to happen next, from the Sleeping Beauty (aka Princess Bonnie McTeuchter, played with true pluck and a great singing voice by Kirsty Findlay) not being the one who falls asleep for 100 years, to her flatly refusing to marry her Prince, the dim but big-hearted Hamish McGuffin.
Sleeping Beauty, Byre Theatre, St Andrews ****
Rapunzel, Cumbernauld Theatre ***
Boldly going where few have dared to go before, Barr’s latest panto – presented by a Glasgow company in Scotland’s poshest university town – tackles the question of Scottishness head-on, setting the story in a mythical mediaeval Scotland full of warring clans and glowing Pictish standing stones. Panto dame Alan Steele – as the failed Fairy, Mary Doll, who becomes Bonnie’s nanny – wickedly warns the audience that there may be “regional accents”; and off we whirl into a helter-skelter of brilliantly staged big pop numbers and hilariously inventive storytelling, with the magnificent Nicole Cooper occupying centre stage as Bonnie’s mother, the beautiful clan queen Nessie McTeuchter, and inspired choreographer Stephen Arden doubling as the horrible bad fairy Raven La Corbie, whose only wish is to take Bonnie’s life, or her liberty.
It’s difficult to overstate the sheer witty inventiveness with which this leftfield version of the story is told, with Steele in astonishing, blackly humorous form as the most wicked Dame in the Scottish pantosphere, and teams of superbly talented youth theatre youngsters playing key roles as loyal clan members, ballet-dancing fairy godmothers, and Raven’s increasingly rebellious minions. And to add to the sheer foot-tapping pleasure of a show whose only fault is the occasional bout of over-clever self-consciousness, the singing and dancing is as strong as anything you’ll see in Scottish pantomime; including a mind-blowing 100-year review of pop culture, and the very best versions around of this year’s two huge, unavoidable panto hits, Dreaming With Your Eyes Wide Open, and This Is Me.
There are no song-and-dance numbers at all, by contrast, in this year’s Rapunzel at Cumbernauld Theatre, a Christmas show, directed and designed by artistic director Ed Robson, that is full of classic pantomime fun and roaring audience participation, but is so fast and filmic in its hour and three quarters of storytelling that the only music there’s time for is Philip Curran’s dramatic background score.
The show’s main problem is that the story is a shade over-complicated, and dependent on too much explanatory dialogue, during which the kids in the audience often just chat amongst themselves. It includes a whole layer of unnecessary meta-narrative involving Rapunzel’s imaginary friends, and makes no attempt to dramatise the story’s central image, the fact that Rapunzel’s immensely long hair helps her escape from her prison; and Louise Stewart, as the gloriously vain wicked queen, repeats herself at length in her quest for eternal youth.
At the centre of the tale, though, there’s a gorgeous, big-hearted performance from Katharine O’Donnelly as Rapunzel, with Tyler Collins in strong comic form as a ganglingly useless Prince, Josh Whitelaw as lovable detective dog Dug, and Kay McAllister as Rapunzel’s pet monkey Mirari. And for all the show’s ups and downs, the children in the audience are thrilled by the mix of human and animal courage and cleverness that brings us to a happy ending; even if we sometimes feel a little bit lost along the way.
Sleeping Beauty at the Byre Theatre, St Andrews, until 5 January; Rapunzel at Cumbernauld Theatre until 29 December.