Peter Pan (Eden Court), When The Winter Wind Blows

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on PETER PAN and WHEN THE WINTER WIND BLOWS at Eden Court Theatre, Inverness, for The Scotsman, 21.12.15
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Peter Pan 4 stars ****
When The Winter Wind Blows 3 stars ***

DO YOU BELIEVE IN fairies? Traditionally, at panto time, almost all of us do, except some naughty boys in the stalls. When it comes to Peter Pan, though – and the famous moment when we all have to clap and cheer to save Tinkerbell from death – it’s easier to conjure up that mood of magic when you’re dealing not with Alan McHugh’s current short, heavily-edited and brutally comic pantomime version on show in Aberdeen and at the SECC), but with Will Brenton’s much more leisurely adaptation, favoured by the Coventry panto producers Imagine Theatre, and, this year, by Eden Court in Inverness.

The downside of Brenton’s approach is that once all the classic panto elements have been added – the comedy cook Nanny McSmee, two increasingly rare kitchen slapstick sequences, an excellent ghost scene, and plenty of song, dance and fight-sequences featuring teams of young cast members from Inverness and the Highlands – it makes for a long evening of almost three hours; some of the comedy sequences, centring on Ian Wotherspoon’s rather ladylike Nanny McSmee, seem a little laboured.

Everything else about this pantomime Peter Pan goes with a swing, though. A fine Smee (Ross Allan) and a truly world-class Captain Hook (Greg Powrie) lead us through the booing, hissing, and hiya-pals audience participation with terrific skill; the sets are pretty, and in this version, the story is allowed a hint of resolution, as the scene returns to the children’s bedroom, and Pan promises to visit, at least sometimes. It hasn’t, and never will have, the same feelgood effect as a traditional panto ending, complete with wedding bells; but it’s tremendous fun, all the same, generous, spectacular, and impressively true to the spirit of Barrie’s original tale.

Upstairs in the Jim Love studio, meanwhile, lucky children under five – and this year, sometimes as young as just one – are being drawn gently into the world of theatre by a gorgous 40-minute show called When The Winter Wind Blows, put togther by Eden Court’s own in-house creative team, which runs the theatre’s vast Highland-wide programme of classes and activities. Devised by the team and directed by the theatre’s Creative Manager Katyana Kozikowska, the show is set in a snowy Arctic wonderland complete with a little igloo that opens up to show the domestic world inside, and features a girl called Kaya, beautifully played by Lorraine Hemmings, who gets the chance, on her birthday, to tell six wishes to the winds that rush round her home, represented in big swirling dance movments by Louise Marshall and Laura Johnston.

Using almost no English words – just “wish” and “wind” – the story leads us through the essential elements of a vast-vanishing Inuit way of life: the bird, seal, husky dogs, owl and reindeer that Kaya wishes to meet, along with a beloved lost grandma, and the simple household tasks – sweeping, fishing, sledge-pulling, drying the fish for the winter – she has to carry out in between wishes. And at every point, the children get a chance to help; in a magical encounter with the far north that might just fire their imaginations for a lifetime, made just for them, at Eden Court.

Peter Pan Until 10 January, When The Winter Wind Blows untio until 31 December.

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Review Of The Year, 2015

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on REVIEW OF THE YEAR 2015, for Scotsman Magazine, 19.12.15
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ANY YEAR IN Scottish theatre tends to offer a strong sense of contradiction, and of suddenly shifting moods; perhaps it’s the old Caledonian antisyzygy in action, playing itself out across our stages. Yet I doubt if there has ever been a theatre year so beset as this one by contrasts between rich achievement and celebration on one hand, and – on the other – a mounting feeling of apprehension and loss, as Scotland’s theatres look to a future which seems set to be dominated by ever deeper cuts in public funding.

In Scotland, at national level, those cuts have hardly happened yet, as culture minister Fiona Hyslop continues the fight to avoid the reductions in arts spending that have already swept England. Yet the pressure on local authority spending is already visible everywhere, not least in a capital city besieged by developers, and struggling to maintain its global festival city status. And the mood of gloom found its most visible outward expression in the sudden closure in May, after the highly debatable withdrawal of its late-night club licence, of the Arches theatre, gallery, music and club venue in Glasgow, for 25 years an outstanding symbol of Glasgow’s cultural gains from its year as European City of Culture in 1990, a pioneer of a new model of arts funding, and a city-centre hotbed of rehearsal, development and performance for generations of young Glasgow artists.

If the Arches closure embodied the dark side of 2015, though, then the Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh was the place that most brilliantly reflected the year’s stark contrasts, with one of the most brilliant programmes of work in the history of the Lyceum Company – founded under Tom Fleming’s direction 50 years ago this autumn – shadowed by the announcement that from April 2015, Creative Scotland would be slashing the theatre’s annual grant by a stinging 17%.

On stage, though, the litany of achievement was magnificent, as the year opened with a heart-stopping John Dove production of Faith Healer by Brian Friel (the mighty Irish playwright who died this year, aged 86), continued through a breathtakingly timely and brilliant staging of Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle by artistic directort Mark Thomson, and culminated in a 50th anniversary autumn season that featured Thomson’s world-class production of Beckett’s Waiting For Godot, with great Scottish stage and screen stars Brian Cox and Bill Paterson.

Following the negative funding news, Mark Thomson announced in the spring that he would leave the Lyceum next summer, after 13 years in the job; and in September, in a strikingly bold move greeted with huge excitement, the Board announced that the next artistic director would be Scotland’s leading playwright David Greig, the first playwright to take on the solo role of running one of Scotland’s major building-based companies since James Bridie at the Citizens’ 70 years ago.

The Citizens’ itself celebrated its 70th anniversary in the Gorbals with a remarkable year of west-of-Scotland-based work, ranging from a revival of John Byrne’s The Slab Boys in February, to new musical The Choir in October and November. The highlight of the Citizens’ year, though, was David Greig and Graham Eatough’s mighty stage version of Alasdair Gray’s Lanark, co-produced by the Citizens’ and the Edinburgh International Festival, and designed to introduce a new generation to one of Scotland’s defining novels of the last 35 years. And there were other anniversaries this year, too. The Citizens’ celebrated the 50th birthday of its famous, shortlived studio theatre, The Close – destroyed by fire in 1973 – with a memorable autumn season of studio productions; and Lung Ha’s, the ground-breaking Edinburgh-based company working with adults with learning difficulties, marked its 30th anniversary with fine productions of Morna Pearson’s take on Jekyll & Hyde, and Linda McLean’s new play about ageing and dementia, Thingummy Bob.

At the National Theatre of Scotland, this seemed a relatively muted year, as the company planned its 2016 move to a new production centre at Rockvilla in Glasgow’s Port Dundas basin, and learned that two of its leading figures, Executive Producer Neil Murray and associate director Graham McLaren, would move on in 2016 to become joint directors of the Abbey Theatre in Dublin. And the same was true at the Traverse, also facing a serious Creative Scotland funding cut, although the company continued to develop its strong working relationship with the lunchtime new-short-play powerhouse of A Play, A Pie And A Pint at Oran Mor, and scored a significant Festival hit with artistic director Orla O’Loughlin’s impeccable production of Stef Smith’s Swallow, a powerful piece about women in the 21st century city by one of Scotland’s most gifted young playwrights.

The Traverse and the NTS came together, though, in one of the most explosively successful first nights of the year, when the Traverse hosted the Edinburgh Fringe opening of Vicky Featherstone’s brilliant NTS touring production of Our Ladies Of Perpetual Succour, an adaptation by Lee Hall of Alan Warner’s fine 1998 novel The Sopranos. In a year when Scottish theatre often seemed to be drawing new inspiration from the nation’s recent theatrical and literary history – and mourned the death of 7:84 co-founder Elizabeth MacLennan – Dundee Rep scored a massive hit with Joe Douglas’s revival of John McGrath’s mighty 1972 agitprop classic The Cheviot, The Stag, And The Black, Black Oil, a production greeted with acclaim by most of those who saw it, and by complaint from those who didn’t, and who felt it should be touring the Highlands & Islands, as the original 7:84 production did 43 years ago. In fact, many shows toured extensively in 2015, from Rapture Theatre’s Arthur Miller season of All My Sons and The Last Yankee, to Our Ladies Of Perpetual Succour itself; but the impression persisted that Scottish touring theatre now lacks the impact and coherence that it had, in the days when there was more ideological heft and radical theory behind the whole concept.

And here in the capital – well, despite funding threats, the grasroots theatre scene continued to thrive on the slimmest of shoestrings, from the Village Pub Theatre in Fort Street to Discover 21 at Jock’s Lodge. In the summer, Leith-based Vision Mechanics staged an exquisite seaside installation-with-soundtrack called Drift, on glorious beaches from Fife to Shetland; throughout the year, the King’s and Festival Theatres continued to offer a memorably rich diet of visiting theatre, from Regent Park’s wonderful To Kill A Mockingbird back in February, to Kneehigh of Cornwall’s fabulously inventive version of Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca, in the autumn.

And the Edinburgh International Festival, the first under the direction of Fergus Linehan, began a dynamic new phase by not only realigning its dates with the Edinburgh Fringe, but also opening up a brand new relationship with Scottish theatre, offering an international platform both to large-scale new work like Lanark, and to existing Scottish shows that deserve a wider audience. 2015 was not a smooth or easy year for Scottish theatre, in other words, and it had its deep shadows. But there was a creative annus mirabilis at the Lyceum, a promising new era at the Edinburgh Festival, a determined effort by other theatres – notably the Tron – to pick up the suddenly-severed loose ends of the Arches’ creative effort; and a pattern of sudden, unpredictable bursts of briliance everywhere, in a year that drew strength and inspiration from the past, but also offered a glimpse of a troubled, energetic, and hugely productive future.

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Peter Pan (SECC)

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on PETER PAN at the Clyde Auditorium, Glasgow, for The Scotsman, 19.12.15
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3 stars ***

FROM BAYWATCH to the Broomielaw, the SECC panto’s new celebrity star, David Hasselhof, makes his journey into the strange world of Scottish pantomime with a certain wounded elegance that pretty well fits his character, Captain Hook. He looks superb, cheerfully sends himself up, and delivers a touching version of My Way as he’s finally swung over the side of the Jolly Roger into the jaws of the ticking crocodile; and if he isn’t exactly John Barrowman – the all-singing, all-dancing small-screen hero he replaces – well, let’s face it, not many people are.

The truth about Hasselhof’s Glasgow panto debut, though, is that it still looks like a showbiz experiment that hasn’t quite settled in yet. With the Krankies and Michelle McManus also on stage – as the Smee brothers and Mimi the Magic Mermaid respectively – this Qdos panto features almost exactly the same Alan McHugh script, and spectacular special effects, as this year’s offering in Aberdeen. Apart from one fairly mind-blowing visual gag featuring Jeanette Krankie as a surfing Pamela Anderson, there’s a surprising lack of good Baywatch jokes; and the slight nervy stiffness of Hasselhof’s performance tends to slow the pace.

There’s still plenty of fun and glitz around, though; Michelle McManus emerges as a real all-round panto star, making a fine job of her traditional “whit fur” comic routine with the Krankies. And with director Jonathan Kiley and musical director Anthony England orchestrating a 20-strong team of singing, dancing Lost Boys and Pan’s People, the show delivers a fine night out – a little hesitant in places, but never short of visual sparkle, and sheer entertainment value.

Until 3 January.

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Priscilla Queen Of The Desert (2015)

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on PRISCILLA QUEEN OF THE DESERT at the Playhouse, Edinburgh for The Scotsman, 19.12.15
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4 stars ****

IT’S NOT A PANTOMIME – oh no, it isn’t! Yet there’s never been a panto produced in Scotland that boasted as many dames to the square inch as Simon Phillips’s much-loved touring production of Priscilla Queen Of The Desert, this year’s Christmas show at the Playhouse; or dressed them in so many fabulous panto-style costumes, from a whole chorus full of dancing paintbrushes, to a sextet of giant cupcakes complete with little inbuilt umbrellas, for a chorus of Someone’s Left The Cake Out In The Rain.

Like all the best pantos, too, Stephan Elliott and Allan Scott’s stage musical – based on Elliot’s 1994 film of the same name – combines outrageous cross-dressing spectacle with an element of genuine, rebellious agitprop, as the show’s three principal dames – a group of performing drag queens from Sydney, led by Jason Donovan as bisexual Tick – set off on a road trip from Sydney to Alice Springs on a ramshackle bus called Priscilla. Along the way, they encounter vicious levels of transphobia and homophobia, as well as unexpected moments of kindness , and sing out loud and proud for a new world of transgender tolerance beyond old rigid boundaries – like the one that for six years, has kept cross-dressing Tick away from his secret wife and son in Alice.

If this powerful strand of 1990’s gender politics helps to hold the show together, though, much of its theatrical appeal is about the sheer extravagance of the spectacle, as not only Donovan, Simon Green and Adam Bailey, as the three main characters, but also a whole dancing chorus of dames, and three fabulous female divas led by Lisa-Marie Holmes, belt their way through a vital play-list of late 20th century classics closely bound up with the history of personal and sexual liberation, from Petula Clark’s Downtown, throug an entire Kylie sequence, to anthems like I Will Survive.

For the Edinburgh dates, the cast also includes Karen Dunbar in the cameo role of redneck barmaid Shirley, and Gavin Mitchell, Still Game’s Barman Boaby, in the key role of Bob, the straight-talking bus mechanic who starts up a tender romance with Simon Green’s transsexual Bernadette. And although the sequence involving Bob’s Vietnamese “mail order wife” – a former exotic dancer addicted to popping ping-pong balls out of unexpected places – perhaps strikes a slightly bum note (in every sense), by 2015 standards, everything else about this over-the-top and hugely enjoyable show has its heart in exactly the right place; including a central performance from Jason Donovan that strikes just the right balance between showbiz brashness, and a touching, shy determination, when it comes to re-discovering his precious relationship with his long-lost son.

Until 2 January.

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This Week’s Scottish Budget Reminds Us That Governments Can Now Do Little But Pass Their Disempowerment Down To Communities And Individuals; Paradoxically, Re-Empowerment Has To Begin From The Bottom Up – Column 18.12.15

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JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman 18.12.15
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IN A SMALL PARLIAMENT of just 129 members, in a small northern country, the finance minister stands up to deliver an annual budget statement for an age of “austerity”. He’s a good enough technician, this finance minister; and he delivers a budget that balances the books within the legal parameters of his job. There’s no evidence, of course, that he wants to make most of the spending cuts he is making; indeed less than year ago, his gifted party leader ran a stunningly successful election campaign based entirely around their party’s total opposition to the cult of austerity. Yet he makes them anyway, slashing local authority spending here, trimming the arts and culture budget there.

And although the pressure of day-to-day politics compels the opposition parties in the chamber to talk as though these cuts were entirely the consequence of this particular government’s malice and incompetence, the truth is that this finance minister is not alone. All across Europe, since 2008, this kind of scene has been played out in many small nations and national regions, often with far greater levels of despair and acrimony; in Greece during the summer of 2015, or in Ireland in the bitter winter of 2010-11, when a nation that had once fought so doggedly for its independence had to watch as the high officials of the IMF and European Central Bank walked into their corridors of government, and started – as a condition of the nation’s bailout – to ask the most detailed questions about why they had not cut this rural bus service, or that element of GPs’ pay.

There was, of course, no real “need” for any of these cuts; if Europe had adopted the same path of mild expansion taken by Barack Obama’s United States in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crash, most of these corrosive attacks on basic household incomes and essential social infrastructure could have been avoided. Instead, though, Europe – including the semi-detached UK – chose to make the public sector, and the poorest citizens who depend most on it, pay for the failures of the world’s largest financial corporations and institutions; and the scene was set not only for the humiliation of Greece and Ireland, but for the much less dramatic – but perhaps equally humiliating – scene played out in the Scottish Parliament on Wednesday.

And the question that arises now is exactly how those of us who reject the austerity mantra – including what now seems ike a majority of the world’s senior economists – can do to help governments at any level escape from this trap of institutionalised miserabilism. The opposition parties at Holyrood, of course, would say that the answer lies in John Swinney’s own hands; he has the power to raise the basic rate of income tax, and should use it. Yet the fact that that is his sole other major policy option only highlights his impossibly small room for manoeuvre; a rise in the basic rate of income tax hits hardest at average earners, and after three decades during which any surplus value in our economy has been steadily shifting from ordinary wages into bonuses and dividends, average earners often now struggle to make ends meet.

The truth is, in other words, that for all the talk of “new powers” for Holyrood, it’s a stench of fundamental disempowerment that hangs over most of our elected political authorities today. And it’s no accident that John Swinney’s most striking single act, in this year’s budget, was simply to pass that misery on down to the next layer of increasingly discredited government, Scotland’s once-proud local authorities; now utterly bereft of their own financial powers, hemmed in by regulatory and financial restrictions, and largely reduced to the status of an under-funded delivery agency for central government policy.

And if it’s at local level that the consequences of this negative cycle of disempowerment can be seen most clearly, then it’s also at local level that the fightback against it has to start. At the moment, the parlous state of Scotland’s local authorities – often mirrored across the UK – has a profoundy negative effect on the self-esteem of citizens; they come to believe that they live in a community of numpties represented by numpties, that they and their neighbours are powerless to improve their own shared lives, and – in a profoundly authoritarian and anti-democratic shift – that we are therefore better to leave decision-making to the big boys of the planet, such as the Westminster and US governments, and their friends in the corporate world.

Yet as we learned during last year’s Scottish referendum campaign, there is also positive alternative to that vicious downward spiral of disempowerment, in which ordinary citizens – once they glimpse the possibility that they might actually be able to change their communities for the better – unleash huge waves of political energy, capable of transforming political landscapes, re-empowering the politicians who represent them, and, given the right alliances, perhaps even eventually winning the changes we need in global and international structures. No one imagines, of course, that harnessing and sustaining those energies will be easy, particularly in a nation sharply divided over the issue of independence.

Yet if we want a resilient, progressive and democratic politics for the 21st century, there is no other route than to rebuild it from the bottom up. At the grassroots, Scotland is a nation with strong civic traditions, and huge potential for local action in areas from green energy to food poverty, and the loving care of the elderly. And if we want to reclaim some element of power over our shared lives – through revitalised and much more “local” local institutions, through a Scottish government that gains positive power from the people rather than passing negative decisions down to us, and through more democratic and creative layers of government beyond that – then the grassroots is where we have to start: first, by saying a firm internal “no” to the authoritarian technocrats of the current world order, who tell us our role is to stay at home and take our medicine; and secondly, by putting our feet on the ground in the communities where we live, believing in the dignity, capacity and creativity of the people around us, and getting to work.

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Tracks Of The Winter Bear

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on TRACKS OF THE WINTER BEAR at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, for The Scotsman, 12.12.15
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4 stars ****

GENTLE SNOW IS FALLING, in this latest Christmas show at the Traverse; but not everyone is dressed for the weather, as we enter a world that’s both magical and brutal, and full of down-to-earth comic realism. Tracks Of The Winter Bear is a double bill of new one-hour plays by leading Scottish playwrights Sptehpen Greenhorn and Rona Munro, separate but deeply intertwined, in theme, imagery and even setting. And like all the Christmas productions Orla O’Loughlin has staged since she became artistic director of the Traverse, this is a show with a strong local twist, full of familiar, streetwise Edinburgh voices.

So in Act 1 – written by Stephen Greenhorn and directed by Zinnie Harris – the play begins at the top of Arthur’s Seat, where Shula is waiting for the first flakes of snow, while Avril circles round her, oddly sunlit in a sleeveless summer dress; it takes a few minutes for us fully to recognise that Avril is gone, her presence a ghostly one.

After that, though, Greenhorn’s script takes us on a powerful, winding flashbck journey through Shula and Avril’s secret love story, perhaps a little flat and over-written around the middle, but illuminated by a fierce central performance from Deborah Arnott as Shula, rough-edged, passionate, and on the brink of dire poverty; but transfigured by love, and faced with the ultimate question of whether she has the strength to walk on alone, without even the closure of being able to say goodbye.

And then, in Rona Munro’s Act 2, we see a similar drift of snow begin to settle on Bear – a mangy female polar bear just escaped from a shabby Highland “winter wonderland” – and on Jackie, inappropriately dressed in an acrylic Mrs. Santa Claus outfit with high-heeled sparkly boots. Like Shula, Jackie is a middle-aged woman destined to be left alone and poor in Abbeyhill. The bear has already eaten Ian, Jackie’s Regent Bar chum, and fellow temporary worker in Santa’s grotto; and her prospects look grim, until the bear starts to form a strange bond with her, eventually running and swimming her all the way back home to Edinburgh -”Oh look! There are the bridges!”

The play that emerges is a small-scale gem of stage poetry, illuminated by two terrific performances from Caroline Deyga and Kathryn Howden, and by the characters’ shared capacity to define emotions by taste; safety, it seems, tastes of biscuits, baked by someone who loves you. Orla O’Loughlin’s production is pitch-perfect; and with austere but beautiful lighting and design by Simon Wilkinson and Kai Fischer, and a gorgeous soundscape of silence, sound and music by David Paul Jones, this Traverse winter show emerges as the most beautiful and rewarding alternative to panto in town.

Until 24 December.

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Beauty And The Beast

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on BEAUTY AND THE BEAST at Perth Concert Hall, for The Scotsman, 14.12.15
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5 stars *****

PERTH’S THEATRE company may be in exile from its lovely home in the High Street, closed for redevelopment for at least another two years. Yet its annual traditional panto, staged at the Concert Hall with the help of a mock Victorian proscenium arch, has been racing up on the rails, in recent years, to challenge the big boys in Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Glasgow; and now, Perth absolutely hits the bullseye, with a hilarious, beautifully-cast version of Beauty And The Beast set in the wee Perthshire town of Auchendreich, where the Beast has his castle.

This brisk panto version of the tale, written by the great Alan McHugh, dispenses with Beauty’s family back-story and dear old Dad. Instead, it cuts straight to the heart of things, where aged retainer Angus McFungus – last servant to remain loyal to the Beast after the witch’s curse – patrols Auchendreich High Street in search of a girl with a heart big enough to break the spell with her love, and meets Belle, on an ill-fated surfing trip with her daft friends Betty Blumenthal the cook, and Betty’s even dafter son Boabby; cue a chorus of Surfing Stanley Bay, a nearby dent in the River Tay. Also on the trail are Ugly Sisters Deadly Nightshade and Poison Ivy; Nightshade the very witch who cursed the Prince when he rejected her, and Ivy her put-upon wee sister, doomed by Nightshade’s spell to kill any man she snogs.

So it’s off to the castle for two-and-a-half hours of riotous fun, song, dance, ghoulies, ghosties and romance, as Belle wins the Beast’s heart, Betty and Boabbie pure josh him into keeping them alive, and a brilliant team of young dancers in 17th century finery spring out of the family portraits to join in the nightly fun. The success of Ian Grieve’s production depends, at heart, on the Rolls-Royce quality of his cast. AmyBeth Littlejohn is a gorgeous, humorous Belle, the Beast is rising star actor-playwright Martin McCormick, Amanda Beveridge is superb as Deadly Nighshade, her wee sister is Angela Darcy of Janis Joplin Full Tilt fame, Tom McGovern plays McFungus, and Betty is the remarkable Barrie Hunter, now quite possibly the best traditional Dame in Scotland.

If the casting is superb, though, there are also terrific original set and costume designs by Ken Harrison, easily the finest so far on this year’s panto circuit; along with joyous choreography by Lynne Bustard, and music, from the three-piece Perth Panto Orchestra, that not only drives the show from start to finish, but often becomes a real convivial part of it, at the heart of this beautiful home-cooked Scottish panto, done to perfection.

Perth Concert Hall, Horsecross, until 26 December.

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