Theatre Royal, Brighton and Duke of York’s Theatre, London
Written by Jonathan Harvey
Directed by Cal McCrystal
Ponder a while and reflect on the image above. It is a picture of Sir Ian McKellen, one of this country’s finest actors and in this photograph by Manuel Harlan is captured the humour, genius and lifetime of experience that defines him. Now read on…
Mother Goose that has played a week at Brighton’s Theatre Royal before transferring to London’s Duke of York's Theatre and then touring into spring next year, is pantomime at its finest.
In one of those rare theatrical events that sees a Knight become a Dame, Ian McKellen leads the company in a spectacular take on the title role. It’s seventeen years since McKellen last did panto and it’s as if he’s never been away. He holds the role flawlessly in a production that has been built for a long haul on the road and thus denies him both Christmas references and moments of localised fast-moving audience interaction. Nonetheless, his majestic dame captures Goose’s stunning faux-glamour alongside some fabulous moments of self-deprecation and immaculately timed repartee. Heck, McKellen even sings, and for just a brief moment, as he lapses into Tomorrow from Annie that’s prefaced by an autobiographical reference to his 8-year old self seeing panto in Bolton, there is just a hint of poignant pathos as we recognise the man’s remarkable longevity and his place in the pantheon of Britain’s greats. But written by Jonathan Harvey this is panto not pathos - and McKellen’s ability to roll through a script that references Mother Goose’s beaver as well as her (his?) haemorrhoids, hallmarks Harvey's carefully crafted text that will tickle all ages. References to Lord Of The Rings abound, and there’s even a splash of Shakespeare on the closing moments, as McKellen’s Dame treats us to Portia’s “Quality of mercy” speech from The Merchant Of Venice.
McKellen’s supporting cast are outstanding. Sharing the celebrity-billing alongside the venerable Dame is standup comedian John Bishop (mocked throughout by McKellen as not being a ‘real’ actor) as Mother Goose’s husband Vic, making a wonderful foil to McKellen’s high-octane campery. Oscar Conlon-Morrey steps up to the comedy role of the Gooses’ son Jack. Conlon-Morrey is a dab hand at panto, heroically handling Jack’s buffoonery and slapstick.
The production’s musical references are a delight, with frequent references to classic musical theatre shows - none finer than the Act Two opener of One from A Chorus Line (I can’t explain its relevance to the plot either) with a delivery that is as brilliant as it is hilarious, with Dame Ian providing the number’s visual (if not vocal) climax. It is left to Anna-Jane Casey however, playing the goose of the show Cilla Quack to deliver not only the odd wry menopause gag, but to take the roof off the Theatre Royal, firstly with a brief take on All By Myself, before a simply stunning version of Don’t Rain On My Parade. It is often said that pantomime is, for many children, their first experience of live theatre. In this production they’re also being given a taste of some of Broadway’s finest songs. A nod here to musical director James Keay whose arrangements, delivered by his economically sized three-piece band, are spot on. Lizzi Gee’s choreography is a treat, delivering dance routines (just wait until you see Sir Ian tap!) that has been lavishly designed and immaculately rehearsed.
The show heads into the West End next week and it is a far more traditional pantomime than London’s other highly-priced festive offering. McKellen’s Mother Goose is not about million-dollar costumes shoehorned into a formulaic variety show. Far from it. This is a pantomime created in the mould of hundreds of shows that are playing across the country right now. It just happens to have one of our finest actors ever giving one of his finest performances. What’s more, when the show departs London in February to tour England, Wales and Ireland , all its tickets are affordably priced too.
It is not often that one can say that a pantomime is “coming to a town near you soon”, but this one is. And when it does, don’t miss it.
Photo credit: Manuel Harlan