JOYCE MCMILLAN on SNOW WHITE OF THE SEVEN DE’WHARFFS at the MacRobert, Stirling, and MOTHER GOOSE at the Brunton Theatre, Musselburgh, for Scotsman Arts 2.12.10
Snow White Of The Seven De’Wharffs 4 stars ****
Mother Goose 3 stars ***
THE THINGS ABOUT the panto season is that is never changes, right? Same old stories every year, same old jokes, same old theatrical traditions; its charm – some might say – lies in its predictability, and in its resistance to the cult of the new that tends to pervade the rest of contemporary theatre.
Except that in Scotland – where theatre artists can only make a living by criss-crossing freely between pantomime and the rest of the theatrical culture – none of that has ever been quite true; and it’s certainly not true when panto falls into the hands of a 21st-century theatremaker as bold, cheeky and irrepressible as rising Glasgow superstar Johnny McKnight, who over the past few years has transformed the pantomime at the MacRobert in Stirling into a hilarious living laboratory of post-modern Christmas entertainment.
McKnight’s technique is to begin with a fierce respect for tradition, and then to innovate wildly around a familiar story; and so it is with this years’s eye-wateringly original version of Snow White, which arranges a shuddering collision between the traditional fairytale and the story of The Sound Of Music, replacing the famous seven dwarfs with the seven De’Wharffs, a family of Von Trapp-style kids led in song by their eldest sister, Snow White.
The curtain therefore rises on a stage full of nuns in sparkly black habits, singing sweetly in front of three stained glass windows dedicated to the great saints of the Scottish panto tradition, Saint Stanley, Saint Rikki, and Saint Jack. McKnight – in teetering heels, chubby fat suit, and a mind-blowing range of obscene and hilarious outfits – plays junior-nun-turned-nanny Maria, in a style that lurches effortlessly from the camp to the louche and back again. Helen McAlpine is a feisty Snow White frightened of love, Jonathan Holt a hysterically self-infatuated Prince Charming-Darling, Michele Gallagher a gorgeous Felicia Fox, and Ross Allan excellent in the Buttons-type role of Swanky, the oldest of the De’Wharff clan of rhyming kids – Lanky, Manky, Twankey, Krankie, and so on, this last proclaiming himself “a durty wee boy”.
Now there’s no denying that in the sheer torrent of his own creativity, as writer and director, McKnight sometimes overreaches himself; the text, in particular, bristles with such an untrackable density of contemporary cultural jokes and references that it sometimes disrupts its own rhythms, and its rudeness sometimes borders on the aggressive.
In dozens of ways, though, this is a post-modern panto to treasure. It treats the central love story with enough respect to keep the plot moving, conjuring up a thoroughly credible romance between reluctant Snow White and her boastful admirer. It has a decent villainess in Melody Grove, recently Gwendolen in the Royal Lyceum’s Importance Of Being Earnest, now deploying her poisoned combs and apples with lustful zeal. It uses music brilliantly, from a terrific version of Saturday Night Fever (“Dwarff Fever, Dwarff Fe-ve-er”) as the kids first burst onto the stage, to the Do-A-Deer singalong – straight from The Sound Of Music – that rounds off the evening, and McKnight’s signature closing number, All I Want For Christmas Is You.
And above all, it fields a combined cast of nine professional actors, and three teams of fourteen youth-theatre performers, with a seamless elegance that binds the whole company into a briliantly energised team, all-singing, all-dancing, effortlessly funny, and completely committed to the story. In that respect, this is a true 21st century panto, not only updating a great old story, and nodding to some of the mighty icons of contemporary popular culture; but also challenging some of the boundaries of professional performance, in a way that involves no sacrifice of quality, and a huge infusion of energy – sometimes over the top, but young, anarchic, and bursting with creative power.
Down at Musselburgh, meanwhile, the Brunton Theatre’s Mother Goose is a relatively traditional affair, but full of charm nonetheless. There’s no panto in Scotland, these days, that makes a better job of setting a traditional tale in a local setting; and thanks to Liam Rudden’s script, and Francis Gallop’s lovely traditional sets, the lucky people of Musselburgh have the chance to see a fairytale acted out on what’s recognisably a panto version of their own local landscape, from the High Street to the Roman Bridge, and a ruined castle somewhere near Tranent.
In tackling the story of Mother Goose, Rudden sometimes seems to lose the sure narrative touch that guided last year’s nautical Sinbad. Although Craig Glover is a strong young Dame, decked out in gorgeous traditional costumes, the theme of Mother Goose’s vanity, and her fatal attraction to the well of eternal youth, seems underdeveloped. The decision to add a subplot about an ageing, menopausal Good Fairy with wand problems is interesting in theory but awkward in practice, despite the best efforts of the lovely Isabella Jarrett, last year’s elegant villainess; and the use of music is often weirdly inappropriate, with the cast struggling through some tuneless songs that seem to have little to do with the plot.
In the end, though, it’s hard to resist the sheer open-heartedness of the Musselburgh panto, as the chorus of local kids strut their stuff, and Aaron Usher – in the Buttons-type role of Mother Goose’s useless son Muddles – encourages us to forgive his old Mum for her foolishness. They call Musselburgh the Honest Toun; and as usual, Liam Rudden’s has given the town a good honest panto, a little frayed round the edges perhaps, but warming to the cockles of the heart, even on the coldest winter day.
Snow White Of The Seven De’Wharffs at the MacRobert Centre, Stirling, until 5 January; Mother Goose at the Brunton Theatre, Musselburgh, until 31 December.