The King And I, Jack And The Beanstalk (Aberdeen), Robinson Crusoe And The Caribbean Pirates

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on THE KING AND I at the Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, JACK AND THE BEANSTALK at His Majesty’s Theatre, Aberdeen, and ROBINSON CRUSOE AND THE CARIBBEAN PIRATES at the SECC Clyde Auditorium, Glasgow, for Scotsman Arts Magazine, 22.12.11
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The King And I 4 stars ****
Jack And The Beanstalk 4 stars ****
Robinson Crusoe And The Caribbean Pirates 4 stars ****

THIS WEEK at the United Nations, governments are still arguing about whether the equality of women and gay rights are basic human rights, or just new forms of western imperialism. So it’s doubly impressive and moving to have a chance to marvel, this Christmas season, at the power and prescience of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein’s great 1951 musical The King And I, now setting off on tour around the UK, in a lavish and thoughtful production first seen last year in Leicester.

Set in the court of the King Of Siam in the early 1860’s, the show famously tells the story of the difficult friendship between the King and Anna Leonowens, a young widow who arrives at the court with her son, to act as governess to the king’s many children. His hope is that his family and country will learn the best of western ways, and become more scientific and modern, without losing their own heritage and traditions.

As the story evolves, though, it becomes clear that this balance is achingly difficult to achieve. Anna’s influence brings the King to the point where he can no longer countenance traditional forms of brutality and sexual violence, particularly towards women; but he pays for that loss of certainty with his life, since the loss of traditional male pride essentially breaks his heart.

All of this is beautifully brought to life, in Paul Kerryson’s powerful and intelligent production, which features two memorable leading performances from a thoughtful, slightly self-mocking Ramon Tikaram as the King, and a forceful and beautiful Josefina Gabrielle as Anna. Say “musical theatre”, of course, and most people will think of something light, frothy, sloppily romantic. This spectacular production, though – the first from Music & Lyrics, the new company of ex-Festival Theatre boss John Stalker – comes as a powerful reminder that this is a show which soars to heights of romance unknown to contemporary theatre, while containing within it a whole Siamese-style opera based on the anti-slavery story of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. And just as the King imagines himself as an opponent of slavery while holding his women as mere possessions, so we today deceive ourselves if we think the buying and selling of human flesh is a thing of the past; Anna’s fight for human dignity, combined with respect for all cultures, is one that never ends, and is movingly captured in this glorious show.

On Scotland’s other main stages, meanwhile, the great annual pantosphere continues to revolve and evolve at dizzying speed, with many theatres reporting record box-office takings. Jack And The Beanstalk at His Majesty’s, Aberdeen, is probably the best and jolliest of this year’s traditional city pantos, with the ubiquitous Alan McHugh in fine form as both author and Dame, and Elaine C. Smith pulling out all the stops as Fairy Flora, in a performance far more witty and generous than her Glasgow King’s persona ever seemed to allow.

There’s the odd quibble around the detail of the show; despite Elaine C.’s big comedy number I’m The Quine Who Did The Strip At Inverurie – apparently added by special request of the First Minister, an Aberdeen panto regular – the show seems slightly less rich in local references than in previous years. For panto traditionalists, though, this is one that contains almost all the classic elements, while giving them a strong local and contemporary twist; and this Qdos production also boasts the best beanstalk and giant in the whole pantosphere, the one joyfully lush and pneumatic, the other just memorably huge.

The biggest shock of the season, though, comes at the Clyde Auditorium of the SECC, where the big UK panto company Qdos’s stages its Glasgow rival to the traditional panto at the city’s King’s Theatre. Last year, their version of Aladdin – featuring a flu-hit John Barrowman, and two pretty perfunctory Krankies – was a smutty and joyless affair, which seemed to hold little promise for the future.

Now, though, the same team has picked itself up, given some serious thought to how best to use the available talent, rustled up some tabloid publicity through the Krankies’ eye-watering claim to have been 1970’s swingers, and created a version of Qdos’s Robinson Crusoe And The Caribbean Pirates that is a naughty, spectacular delight from start to finish, with a powerful local twist, and unfailingly high production standards.

Co-directed by Qdos’s Jonathan Kiley and Barrowman himself, and co-written by the selfsame Alan McHugh, the show features Barrowman as Robinson Crusoe, with Jeanette Krankie as his identical twin brother Jimmy (a dirty wee boy), and Ian Krankie as his dad Captain Crusoe; and through this hilariously improbable family relationship, the Krankies are reborn as a seriously dynamic comic duo, as they join Barrowman in defeating the classic panto villain, Blackheart the pirate.

The real revelation of the show, though, is Barrowman himself, who emerges this year as a true panto star. Last year, the jokes about his really-gay sexuality were a bit of an embarrassment; this year, he cheerfully swings both ways, fancying Jeremy Fontanet’s gorgeous Man Friday, yet adoring the beautiful Magic Mermaid. And the result – note this, analysts of sexual mores – is the best panto kiss of the whole season, as Barrowman finally gathers his lovely mermaid into his arms. it’s as if, in the world of 21st century, the well-sorted-out gay guy is free to be the complete romantic hero; while the straight guy, still struggling like the King Of Siam with false ideas about macho power and strength, has to send himself up, or feel like a sap.

The King And I at the Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, and Robinson Crusoe at the SECC, Glasgow, both until 7 January. Jack And The Beanstalk at His Majesty’s, Aberdeen, until 8 January.

PERFORMANCE OF THE WEEK

John Barrowman’s impressive Robinson Crusoe at the SECC, generous and glamorous as they come. He sings and dances brilliantly, shows a real gift for self-deprecating comedy, and – most startlingly – begins to look like the man best placed to carry on where Gerard Kelly left off, in developing a warm, rich, teasing and reciprocal live relationship with the great Glasgow panto audience.

ENDS ENDS

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