Michael Cox looks at his first batch of Christmas shows: the Lyceum's Beauty and the Beast, Citizens' Hansel and Gretel, Tron's Mister Merlin: A Pure Magic Panto and A Play, a Pie and a Pint's Snow White and the Seventh Dwarf.
There’s something both maddening and brilliant about the Christmas theatre season in Scotland. There’s so much to see that you’re almost spoilt for choice, even if quality—and style—greatly vary. Sure, there are the traditional pantos out there, but there are also productions that try to skirt around pantomime’s traditions and others that set out to be completely different.
Take the Lyceum’s Beauty and the Beast for example. The Lyceum seems to pride itself on presenting ‘Christmas shows’ instead of pantos, which for me have always felt more like ‘panto-lite’ than anything else. Actors break the fourth wall and audiences boo, hiss and scream at the action, but the vaudevillian aspect is missing. Past Lyceum Christmas shows have also had an odd habit of presenting villains that seem to be in a completely different production, coming across as either too camp or removed from the rest of the dramatic action.
This is no different. The play is dramatic without being too dramatic and humorous without being overly slapstick. Ruth Milne and Andrew Rothney play it straight as the titular characters. Lewis Howden has some nice scenes as Beauty’s down-on-his-luck father and Mark McDonnell adds much of the humour as the magical Dunt. Kudos should be given to understudy Laurie Brown who, during the press night, did an admirable job playing the most enduring character: Billy the Dog.
Angela Clerkin’s witch Crackjaw is presented in a fairly frightening vain, with mood lighting, costumes and smoke effects to boot, and yet her contribution to the story is fairly weak and a bit contradictory. The real villains are actually Hannah and Hazel, two spoilt girls whose selfishness cause misery for their father and younger sister, Beauty; yet their humour seems to exist not to further the production but to instead pepper it with comedic diversions.
While the Lyceum’s production seems padded with diversions, Citizens Hansel and Gretel’s entire first act is nothing more than excess weight. Everything people associate with this fairy tale (children taken into the woods, breadcrumb trails, a gingerbread house and a showdown with an oven) are all found in the 40-minute second act. Act one’s hour long run is an overlong set up for the witch to lay bare her dastardly scheme—to destroy a family. While this could be seen as powerful stuff, it’s never fully explored for one simple reason: the witch isn’t the main character (the hint is in the title).
While Alan McHugh’s script might be misguided, the production itself is quite good. It’s well designed, spiritedly staged by Guy Hollands and filled with great performances. Lynn Kennedy and Jim Sturgeon do well in the rather thankless roles of the parents, but David Carlyle’s Hansel and Gemma McElhinney’s Gretel are a blast to watch and easy to root for. However, the real revelation of the production is Jennifer Harraghy. Making her professional debut as witch Vanya, she performs with utter aplomb, relishes her character’s wicked streak and showcases brilliant vocals. She’s certainly a talent to watch out for in the future and has a tendency of overtaking the stage whenever she’s on.
Another villain who has overtaken a stage is Keith Fleming’s Great Bahooky in the Tron’s Mister Merlin: A Pure Magic Panto. Along with sidekick Bumble, excellently played by Robbie Jack, the two scheme to become great magicians by stealing Merlin’s all-powerful wand. Instead of evil geniuses, they instead stumble around the stage like Professor Fate and Max Meen from The Great Race and their animated counterparts of Dick Dastardly and Muttley from Wacky Races, resulting in some fine moments of shenanigans that had the audience in hysterics.
While the majority of the production focuses on its villains, it still has some solid heroes. Jimmy Chisholm is great fun as Merlin, a character who is more of an extended cameo than a major player in the story, and Angela Darcy is equally good as the cheeky Govan Fairy. The real protagonists are actually Penny and Peter, played with fun pizzazz by Sally Reid and Finn Den Hertog. Both play off of each other and with the audience brilliantly, and they take dramatic control of the second act quite effectively.
It might not be the major postmodern panto experience past Tron productions have been, but with loads of hilarious moments, a collection of good heroes and two brilliant villains, it is still great fun.
What does embrace the postmodern experience is A Play, a Pie and a Pint’s Snow White and the Seventh Dwarf. While I wouldn’t go so far as to call this an ‘adult’ panto, it certainly isn’t for kids (especially with its sometimes liberal use of profanity).
As it’s from creative minds that come from Wildcat, a political slant is all but guaranteed. Political correctness is shamelessly ridiculed, and the production is at its most successful when it steers away from any other Snow White. I was particularly fond of Snow White’s encounter with the Royal Assassin in the woods and the evil Queen’s failing to understand the Occupy Movement pitched in front of her castle.
For me, it wasn’t as successful as the past few pantos I’ve seen at Oran Mor, but it was still a good laugh that contained enough sharp moments and wicked political insight to warrant admission.
Beauty and the Beast performs at the Lyceum until December 31. Hansel and Gretel performs at the Citizens until January 7. Mister Merlin: A Pure Magic Panto performs at the Tron until December 31. Snow White and the Seventh Dwarf performs at A Play, a Pie and a Pint until December 24.