JOYCE MCMILLAN on BEAUTY AND THE BEAST at the MacRobert, Stirling, for The Scotsman 3.12.13
4 stars ****
IF JOHNNY MCKNIGHT is Scotland’s latest crown prince of panto – and he is, popping up everywhere as writer, director, and Dame – then it’s clear that some aspects of the old tradition are in very good hands. His latest mainstage Christmas show for the MacRobert in Stirling is a dauntlessly rude and topical version of Beauty And The Beast, in which Belle and her brother Sebastian (Belle & Sebastian, geddit?), plus their outrageous single mum Bunty, are about to be evicted from a downtrodden part of Stirling, where the kids cannot even afford to enter the local Glee-style talent contest.
The Beast, meanwhile, is living nearby in a strangely familiar stately home called Bowfin Abbey; and if the torrent of Downton, Glee and X-Factor jokes was not enough, the show also evolves into a Grease mash-up, as Dawn Sievewright’s unromantic, nose-picking little Belle morphs into a gorgeous Olivia Newton John lookalike, and wins the love of her Beast-turned-Travolta, a cheerful Martin McCormick. The jokes, the slapstick, the familiar songs and the box-fresh cultural references are all in place, in other words; along with a torrent of lurid costumes for McKnight as the rapacious Bunty, a great deal of loud competitive farting, and some strikingly sharp choregraphy, by Karen Martin, for the brilliantly-deployed team of fifteen local teenagers who form a key element of the MacRobet panto cast.
On the downside, the show is so loudly, cruelly comic that it almost completely lacks magic and romance, except of the jokiest sort; and McKnight’s script – complete with self-absorbed thespian voice-over – is often so self-consciously meta-theatrical that it threatens to swallow its own storyline. Yet the sheer joie-de-vivre of McKnight’s company wins through in the end; and if this Beauty And The Beast is neither subtle nor beautiful, it still offers a good, rude explosion of Christmas fun, designed to give the whole family their best laugh of the year.