JOYCE MCMILLAN on SLEEPING BEAUTY at His Majesty’s Theatre, Aberdeen and ALADDIN at the Clyde Auditorium, SECC, Glasgow, for Scotsman Arts 6.1.10
Sleeping Beauty 5 stars *****
Aladdin 3 stars ***
IN SOME WAYS, this has seemed like the panto season that would never end. Smothered in snow, stripped of the schools audiences that provide vital income for so many of Scotland’s theatres, and sometimes playing to half-empty houses because ticket-holders just couldn’t make it to the theatre, this strange, disrupted Christmas season could hardly have come at a worse moment for many theatres, facing the likelihood of local authority spending cuts next year.
Yet despite the weather – or perhaps partly because of it – this year’s Christmas shows across Scotland have sparkled with a rare creativity and intensity, full of glittering highlights. In Edinburgh, both the Traverse and the Festival Theatre staged world-class shows, and the Playhouse rocked to the jolly sounds of the panto-style musical Hairspray. At Pitlochry, the first-ever panto in the hills was a roaring artistic success. In Glasgow, the Citizens’ produced a beautiful, lyrical and strange version of The Beauty And The Beast, with fabulous music and high-octane drama.
And in Aberdeen – well, in Aberdeen, the man who wrote that fine Citizens’ show, Alan McHugh, demonstrates the sheer breadth of his understanding of the Christmas theatre tradition by donning his frilly dress and big bosom, and appearing as Nurse Nancy in Sleeping Beauty, the glorious annual panto at His Majesty’s. More traditional and warm-hearted than Edinburgh, jollier than the King’s in Glasgow, superbly written by McHugh with hilarious new song lyrics by Olly Ashmore, and directed by Taggart star Alex Norton, the show at His Majesty’s is now probably the best traditional panto in Scotland; and this year, it features Elaine C. Smith in the role she might have been born to play, as the truly wicked but slightly comic Carabosse, the glamorous villainess who might have been born in Torrie, but is determined to rule the world.
What makes the Aberdeen panto special is its combination of big-city scale and glamour with a small-town intensity of local reference. By the time the cast have reduced two major Village People hits to comic rubble (“Go West” becomes a roaring Doric anthem called “North-East”), thrilled to Carabosse’s blistering patter-song rendering of “Cos I’m A Woman, W-U-M-I-N”, and listened to a rousing blues anthem about the beauties of Tillydrone (where the seagulls steal your kebab and there’s no signal on your phone), the audience are roaring their delight, not only at the show, but at the very life and language of the city they live in. McHugh is now the best young Dame on the Scottish stage (although one joke about whether he’s really a woman or a man would do), John Bett and Sarah Collier are hilarious and distinguished as the King and Queen; and even the intrusive presence of that canine sponsor of all shows currently produced by giant panto company Qdos, Churchill the insurance dog, can’t dampen the mood of joyful celebration.
The new Qdos panto at the SECC in Glasgow, by contrast, is a show that recruits stars, but then has no real idea what to do with them. It’s script, to put it bluntly, is mince, despite some input from the same Alan McHugh; and despite the shrieking of the audience, most of the comedy manages the unlovely double whammy of being both so filthy it makes you feel like taking a shower, and completely unfunny.
The lovely John Barrowman, of Torchwood, blazes with talent and potential in the central role of Aladdin, singing and dancing well, smiling fit to bust, and sometimes glancing desperately around the barn-like stage as if in search of a script with something to offer, apart from an obsessive series of smutty gags about the fact that he is a gay man playing a straight guy. Pete Gallagher is a decent villain; and it’s wonderful to see The Krankies strutting the panto stage again, after a collapsing beanstalk at the Pavilion a few years ago left them seriously injured, and threatening retirement.
The comic material, though, is dire, to the point where the Krankies now get more laughs by pretending to be elderly celebrities who can no longer do a comic routine, rather than stage professionals who can do one. As a result, the whole show teeters on the verge of Strictly Come Dancing syndrome, that ghastly combination of deference and cruelty that makes audiences prefer seeing the famous fail, to seeing talented people perform well. And with or without Churchill, it seems to me that Qdos, and all other panto producers, flirt with that culture at their peril.
Sleeping Beauty at His Majesty’s Aberdeen, and Aladdin at the SECC, Glasgow, both until Sunday, 9 January.