Review by Daz Gale
Pantomimes are a staple of the festive season, aren’t they? Throughout December audiences are encouraged to shout “HE’S BEHIND YOU” and turn a blind eye when contemporary songs are shoehorned in to the most paper-thin plots. And then we all take our Trees down and put it all behind us for another 11 months… or do we? One panto bucking the trend is the high profile Mother Goose which continues it West End run all month before embarking on a UK tour until April. I was unable to make it to see the show before Christmas, so in keeping with the production itself, I’ve had a gander there for a rare panto review in January instead. Oh yes I have.
Mother Goose has challenged the annual London Palladium pantomime as the most high profile, must-see panto of the year. With a cast led by Sir Ian McKellen and John Bishop, they certainly caused a stir from the moment they burst out of a golden egg at last years press launch announcement. It’s safe to say expectations were high for this panto thanks to the high calibre of people involved with it, but could it deliver?
The basic premise of Mother Goose sees married couple Caroline (Ian McKellen) and Vic (John Bishop) fortunes turn around when they meet Cilla Quack (Anna Jane Casey) who can lay golden eggs – though their loyalty to her is questioned when the opportunity to make Caroline arises. Complicated stuff? It’s panto so the plotline is secondary to all the silliness and shenanigans that occurs. It has to be said though that in this panto they stick closer to an actual plot than a lot of the others.
There is something special about seeing such a revered actor like Ian McKellen on stage in the West End. Seeing him dressed as a panto Dame in a series of outlandish outfits all the while making blue jokes almost feels too absurd to be real, but the way Ian can laugh at himself is all part of the charm and makes for an incredibly special performance. Nods to Ian’s illustrious career are present throughout with a hilarious running joke seeing him channelling Gandalf from Lord Of The Rings as well as an opportunity to recite a bit of Shakespeare – something they rightly point out, you wouldn’t get from Julian Clary.
It’s Ian’s comic timing which really makes his performance come alive though – a true master of comedy, he uses an incredibly expressive face (watch for literal tongue in cheek from him) as well as an always hilarious delivery of lines makes this one of the all time great panto performances. I didn’t know I needed to see Ian McKellen tap-dance and sing ‘I’m Too Sexy’ on a West End stage until now… but my life is all the better for experiencing it. It’s the fact he is so clearly having the time of his life in this role which ensures everybody watching has just as much fun in what is a completely joyous performance.
John Bishop swaps the safety of his stand up tours to play Ian McKellen’s husband Vic. Brilliantly self-deprecating, John is more than happy to take a back seat at necessary times, all the while commanding the audience when he is front and centre. An unusual opening sees John greet the audience and manage their expectations all the while cracking jokes before the show starts, while he gets another moment away from the action of the show later on. A gifted comedian, John was equally fantastic in the role and had me believing him and Ian McKellen were a real married couple. Stranger things have happened.
The talent on that stage extends way past the married Gooses (Geese?) starting with their son, played by the always incredible Oscar Conlon-Morrey. If you’ve seen him on stage, in person or on social media before, you’ll be acutely aware of how effortlessly funny Oscar is, and he gets to show that off in abundance here as the dim-witted and loveable Jack. Showing off his range of talents including his gorgeous singing voice, Oscar holds his own against his legendary parents, and forms a great double act with love interest Jill, played fantastically by Simbi Akanda.
Anna-Jane Casey swaps the Kit Kat Club for Debenhams in a sensational turn as Goose Cilla. Tapping into her comedic side, she proves once again what a formidable performer she is, bringing the house down with a rousing ‘Don’t Rain On My Parade’. If anyone can lay a massive golden egg with style, it’s Anna-Jane. Sharon Ballard and Karen Mavundukure form a memorable double act as the Good and Bad Fairies Encanta and Malignia respectively. Both showcasing remarkable singing voices both solo and together with their showstopping duet ‘No More Tears (Enough Is Enough)’. While their stage time may be limited, they always raise a smile while they (try to) crack the whip.
The entire cast on that stage are marvellous to watch with a supporting cast of animals and puppets ramping up the silly factor. Standouts among the fabulous cast are Genevieve Nicole in one of the campest things I have ever witnessed as Puss and a scene-stealing performance from Richard Leeming as a Randy Bat (you heard that right).
Cal McCrystal’s direction is always a joy to watch with the stage bursting with life through intricate staging. At times it is utterly chaotic but so precise in its chaos, it is a testament to how spot on the direction is. Liz Ascrofts set design may lack a massive beanstalk like another panto but it makes up for it in familiar and funny sight gags, looking as conventionally “local panto” as you can get, but still adding a touch of West End glitz and glam to the affair, and her costume designs, especially for Ian McKellen are every bit as spectacular as you would hope.
Mother Goose is a vehicle with many stars but there’s one more to mention and that is the writing itself. Penned by the legendary Jonathan Harvey, all the classic panto tropes are there but have been segued together so seamlessly, it feels more akin to a non-panto show. Filled with hilarious one liners and clever references, the writing is bang up to date and has clearly been tweaked since first opening with references to very recent events. If you want jokes about various members of the Royal Family and former Prime Ministers from the last 12 months (if you can remember them all) this is the panto for you. However, if you’re not a fan of penis gags *cough* this might not be the panto for you.
To put it simply, Mother Goose is an absolute hoot (honk?). A truly incredible cast filled with legends and future legends in their own rights consistently impresses with genius delivery of comedy and stunning vocals on some undoubted classic. With truly brilliant writing, panto season may be over (for the most part) but this truly was one of the greats. Eggsceptional, Eggscellent and Eggstraordinary, Mother Goose really is the mother of all Pantos and proof that a panto is for life, not just for Christmas.
Mother Goose plays at the Duke Of York’s Theatre until 29th January. It then flies around the UK on tour until 16th April. Full dates and tickets from https://mothergooseshow.co.uk
Photos by Manuel Harlan