It’s a high risk panto, in some ways: a London legend that does not adapt easily to a Scottish setting, and a story that many children may not know, unlike the Disney-familiar Aladdin and Cinderella.
Dick Whittington ****
Eden Court Theatre, Inverness
Dick McWhittington ***
His Majesty’s, Aberdeen
Byre Theatre, St Andrews
If you want to see how to make a Christmas success of the tale of Dick Whittington, though, then head for Inverness, where the Eden Court team turn out what’s possibly the finest family panto in Scotland this year, open-hearted, funny, generous, and featuring a brilliant central comedy team in director-cum-performer Steven Wren as Sarah The Cook, and the quietly excellent Ross Allan as her son, Idle Boaby.
One of the secrets of this Dick Whittington’s success, perhaps, is that it wastes no energy trying to alter the story: Charlotte Forbes’s lovely Dick Whittington – one of the few principal boys left in Scotland – shakes the dust of Inverness from her feet in the first scene, never to return. Instead, the show relies for its Scottish accent on an excellent mainly-Scottish cast, and cracks on with the tale of how Crawford Logan, as Alderman Fitzwarren, and his lovely daughter Alice (Amy Scott), come to rely on Dick and his fabulous cat Tommy (a superb Sophie Donald) to defend them against King Rat’s invasion of London.
Everything about this version of the story fits together beautifully, from Ian Lauchlan and Will Brenton’s simple but clear script, to the brilliant vision of King Rat as a smelly sewer autocrat with a wonderful throne like a jet-propelled toilet seat.
At almost three hours – including, on Friday, an onstage real-life proposal involving the couple who had won the National Panto Day prize draw – this Dick Whittington is one of the longest pantos around. Yet it’s worth every minute: a fine, well-made family show, that seems to be enjoying its relationship with the audience so much that it hardly wants the fun to end.
His Majesty’s version of Dick McWhittington, by contrast – with script by Aberdeen’s much-loved panto Dame, Alan McHugh – suffers from some of the same problems as the Perth production of the same text, in that the story, and particularly the role of the hero, is so underwritten that it leaves the actor playing Dick hanging around the stage like a knotless thread; and here, to compound the problem, he’s also given a non-dancing cat with no personality at all.
If the narrative lacks drive, romance and credibility, though, the Aberdeen panto is never short of larger-than-life local laughs, with Alan McHugh and Jordan Young in outrageous comic form as Dame Tilly McDrone and the hapless Boaby, and Elaine C Smith in fantastic voice as the ever-resourceful Fairy Fit Like, capable of transforming herself into a fabulous Aberdeen Adele or an instant Donald Trump, as the plot demands. This is also a comic cast who have a brilliant way with classic panto tongue-twisters; and their “shirt short” sequence is one to be cherished, until the next panto season comes round.
One of the strangest stories in the Scottish panto world, meanwhile, is the tale of how the polite university town of St Andrews came to host one of the rowdiest and smuttiest Glasgow meta-pantos around, in the annual show created there by writer-director Gordon Barr and the Bard In The Botanics company. In this year’s Aladdin at the Byre, Barr’s irrepressibly camp star Robert Elkin extracts the double-entendre max from his role as Slave Of The Ring, and Alan Steele paints himself up into a truly hideous lust-filled Dame, twice as frightening as Johnny McKnight’s at the Tron, and less than half as attractive.
Fortunately, though, Barr is also no mean storyteller. The fairytale aspects of the story are well looked after, with Robert Watson and Christina Gordon acting their socks off as Aladdin and Princess Jasmine, and there’s some truly superb work involving the panto’s young local players, including one dance sequence which somehow, with minimal resources, achieves an almost Busby Berkeley-like mood of witty Hollywood grandeur.
And for all its overlong, self-indulgent meta-panto jokery, this is clearly a panto to watch; with a firm eye on the details of the tradition, as well as a willingness to boldly go where no panto may have gone before, and to crack some memorably filthy jokes, along the way.
*Dick Whittington at Eden Court and Dick McWhittington at His Majesty’s, Aberdeen, both until 8 January. Aladdin at the Byre, St Andrews, until 31 December.