JOYCE MCMILLAN on THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE at the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh, THE WIZARD OF OZ at the Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow, and ALADDIN at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, for Scotsman Review 5.12.08
The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe 3 stars ***
The Wizard Of Oz 4 stars ****
Aladdin 3 stars ***
ONCE UPON A TIME, in a little northern country, there were two theatres in two rival cities; and around Christmas time, they used to play host to a real riot of home-grown creativity. There was a wonderful man called Stuart Paterson who wrote new versions of old fairytales that gave them a completely fresh inflection – sometimes feminist, sometimes green, often distinctively Scottish – without ever losing sight of their special seasonal magic and stardust. Even better, he combined those stories with elements of the panto tradition – the hissing and booing, the songs and the spells, the essential audience participation – in ways that made Christmas theatre come alive for a whole new generation. And Paterson wasn’t the only brilliant maker of new Scottish Christmas shows around at the time; the Citizens’, for instance, often staged shows by Myles Rudge, a writer who skewered the whole ethos of the Thatcher years in a series of brilliant children’s parables.
And what do these theatres give us now, during the festive season? Well, where they once played around exhilaratingly with cultural assumptions and hierarchies, now they simply accept them, and tend to offer us polite, passive, well-presented stage re-creations of children’s stories made famous on film. Mark Thomson’s well-crafted production of The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe, at the Royal Lyceum , is a classic case in point, a revamp of a 24-year-old London stage version of the story-turned-film that is attractively designed, decently acted, and culturally almost as dead as a doorknob.
Thomson’s show has at least two major assets, in Ken Harrison’s beautiful sets – imaginative and appealing without a hint of excess – and in Meg Fraser’s ferociously angry and glamorous tragi-comic turn as the wicked White Witch. The production is technically flawless, and Amy McAllister is gorgeously brave and stubborn as the youngest of the three children, Lucy.
Everything else about this show, though, seems more or less pointless, from the tearful domestic perspective on tyranny and oppression that characterises C.S, Lewis’s original tale, to the cut-glass posh accents unnecessarily adopted by most of the cast. For some reason, there’s one brief excursion into song, when the Beaver suddenly begins to warble about Christmas. It’s a sad moment: not only because it seems out of place in itself, but because it reminds us of what a truly energised Christmas show can be, and how freely it can use the whole rich spectrum of theatrical means, rather than the polite and limited range on view here.
If the Citizens’ version of The Wizrd Of Oz fares better than the Lyceum show, it’s simply because Frank L. Baum’s great story, as filtered through the iconic movie, is a powerful and timely tale about the survival of hope and love in an age of economic depression; and, of course, because the show comes equipped with a matchless series of much-loved songs. The Citizens’ production – co-directed by Guy Hollands and brilliant movement director Andrew Panton – boasts a terrific Glasgow cast, led by Helen McAlpine as Dorothy, Pauline Knowles and Cara Kelly in sensational leading-lady form as the good and bad witches, and Andrew Clark as a world-class Cowardly Lion; it also has strong visual effects by Jason Southgate, and a memorably thrilling view of the Emerald City.
At a full two and a half hours, the show seems a shade long. The odd elaborate dialogue sequence could certainly be trimmed; and the decision to conceal the band behind the set gives the music an unnecessarily dead, karaoke feel. But this is a great popular parable from the last Great Depression, that chimes perfectly with the mood of the moment; and the Citizens’ Company deliver it with memorable skill and feeling, if not with any great originality.
And meanwhile, at the King’s in Edinburgh, the team of panto star Allan Stewart and and writer/director Paul Elliott prepare to churn out the latest in what is now, for Stewart, a 13-year series of pantos, each one more smoothly streamlined than the last, and more ruthlessly stripped of traditional panto elements. To say that this year’s Aladdin is a bit of a one-star show is an understatement. The production now depends so heavily on Allan Stewart – for comedy, tuneful song, and any real sense of connection with the audience – that as Widow Twanky, he has to accompany his son Aladdin on every step of his adventures, including right into the cave where he discovers the magic lamp.
As for the show’s spectacular new 3-D visual effects – well, it’s worth donning your plastic specs to see them. But Stewart says it all, when he asks wee Nicola from the audience what she likes best so far, and bursts into mock tears when she says she prefers a set of 3-D cartoon spiders to a live performer with 30 years experience. This is a panto that has killed the magical goose that lays the golden eggs, a panto without slapstick, without a song-sheet, without a Buttons-figure, without real local identity, without a core company of strong panto performers, and without much audience participation, beyond the odd perfunctory hiss and boo. It’s slick, it’s genial, it’s not a bad night out. But if you sow the tempest of alienation from pantomime as a rich, living, and empowering form of popular theatre – well then, as wee Nicola’s response suggests, you reap the whirlwind of audience indifference to the whole business of live performance.
The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe at the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh, and The Wizard Of Oz at the Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow, both until 3 January; Aladdin at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, until 18 January.