Is pantomime a reactionary form, mired in tradition and stuck with crowd-pleasing familiarity, or can it also be radical? Johnny McKnight, a one-man panto powerhouse who has been turning out two scripts a year for more than a decade, sees it as popular theatre at its most subversive. He loves the panto trappings – the lurid spectacle, the call-and-response, the dance routines and, above all, the comedy – but tied in with his voracious appetite for pop-culture trivia is a razor-sharp sense of an ever-changing world.
Each year, he alternates playing the dame between Glasgow and Stirling. This time, he’s at the Tron as Mammy Goose (★★★★☆), a woman who speaks with the voice of the dispossessed. Forever on the bottom of the ladder, she is torn between nurturing her family and fulfilling her own carnal desires, making her equal parts loveable and formidable. Wielding her wit as an offensive weapon, she lets nobody get above their station.
There’s politics in that, of course, but it’s in the sly tweaks of the story that McKnight challenges tradition. Most gloriously in Mammy Goose, ravishingly designed by Kenny Miller and excellently scored by Ross Brown, he gives the central love story to the two male leads. And nobody minds.
When a mop-topped Darren Brownlie as Jack Goose falls for Ryan Ferrie’s sensitive new-romantic Will Visage, the only issue is that Will is the son of the baddie (a fabulous Lauren Ellis-Steele). When they can sing, dance and wisecrack as well as these two, the crowd has no choice but to roar its approval. Only Julie Wilson Nimmo’s hilarious Lucy Goose is slow on the uptake; the rest of us seem to have something in our eye.
McKnight likes to play games with gender stereotypes and, in his reworking of Sleeping Beauty as Sleepin’ Cutie (★★★★☆) on the big Macrobert stage, he can’t bring himself to place his hopes in the handsome prince. How to justify backing the archetypal male stranger when Bonnie, the heroine – the one we actually care about – is dozing for a passive 100 years under the witch’s spell? He has two answers.
The first is to observe this is Bonnie’s 21st birthday, meaning her fateful christening takes place in the post-Spice Girls 1990s where girl power has taken off but not yet #MeToo. Some feminist consciousness-raising still has to be done. With Richard Evans’s costumes drawing on the designer excess of the 90s celebrity, we are in the era of big-bucks Hello! photoshoots and commercialised vanity. Helen McAlpine’s low-hipped witch, Queenie McMeanie, might have had her way had she not stipulated a press ban at the christening. The idea of banishing the paparazzi is too much for this royal family.
McKnight’s second trick is to field a principal boy in the form of Katie Barnett’s thigh-slapping Prince Charming who is a parody of arrogant masculinity. Primarily in love with himself and his hilariously warped upper-crust accent, he assumes things will go his way as only the over-privileged can. Nor does he ever get Bonnie’s name right. Barnett is as eccentrically funny as she is in her first-half turn as the autocratic Queen Jegging.
Prince Charming’s singular lack of romantic powers clears the field for Robert Jack’s Jester – as loose limbed as he is adorable – to demonstrate the meaning of true love. For all the spangly irreverence of Julie Ellen’s high-octane show, the wish-fulfilment fantasy is genuinely touching.