Sir Ian McKellen and John Bishop host a joyful visit to pantoland.
Perhaps the biggest perk of this job is that we get to review various shows, events, and locations. Twice a year, a list gets sent round the Niche production office of shows that Curve has invited us to review, and for us to register our interest. Within seconds of receiving the list, I'd pretty much carved my initials into the page next to Mother Goose.
There was no way I was going to miss the opportunity to see Ian McKellen perform on stage, and as a long-time fan of John Bishop too, this was perfect. As a similar level of acting/Lord of the Rings nerd, I was accompanied by our editor, Kerry Smith, who has also contributed to this review.
I have a history of being sceptical about big celebrity-laden pantomimes, as they have a tendency to overload the show with tangential set pieces, tailored to the skills of the performers involved (John Barrowman's ice dancing routine in the middle of Robin Hood at Birmingham Hippodrome leaps to mind). I like my panto a little more traditional, keeping true to the story.
Fortunately for me, Sir Ian appears to be of a similar mindset, as there are plenty of nods to the traditions of pantomime that feel like his influence. Director Cal McCrystal and writer Jonathan Harvey have created a production that feels timeless yet contemporary.
The show opens with John Bishop, firmly out of character, coming on stage to address the audience, establish some rules of interaction, and teaching us a few traditions (the evil fairy always enters stage left; the good fairy always enters stage right). Bishop also tells us that he knows it's weird to watch a pantomime in March, but - traditionally - pantomimes would always run from Christmas to Easter, so they've reinstated that. Having not expected to learn some theatre history from this show, I was already delighted with how this was going on.
The formalities out of the way, the show proper starts with the introduction of the bad fairy, Malignia ("Boo! Hiss!"), and the good fairy, Encanta ("Yay! Woo!"), before introducing members of the ensemble. Celebrating the randomness of panto, these are the animals: Bat (our favourite), Penguin, Tortoise, Bear, Goat, Monkey and Cricket, who each have some cracking one-liners and eccentric personalities. There is also an utterly captivating Puss in Boots (Genevieve Nicole) who has wandered in from the wrong pantomime.
Full credit to the ensemble of this production, because it's a borderline thankless task, considering the star power of the two leads. Had the entire show been two hours of McKellen and Bishop exchanging thinly-veiled nob-gags, I seriously doubt that anyone in Curve's packed out auditorium would've minded. Yet the ensemble add a lot to this, and it's to their credit that each finds their moment.
The plot is centred around Caroline "Mother" Goose's (McKellen) animal sanctuary, housed within a now empty Debenhams, where she and husband Vic (Bishop) are struggling to pay their bills. The arrival of Cilla Quack (Anna-Jane Casey), an actual goose that lays golden eggs, literally changes their fortunes.
We're also introduced to their son, Jack (as per panto tradition, the audience is encouraged to greet him with "Hi Jack" whenever he enters the stage, ultimately paying this off while aboard an aeroplane, deep in the second half). Oscar Conlon-Morrey is tasked with the comic-turn of this production, clowning about the stage throughout. Classic panto frivolity is had during a just-for-laughs cake baking scene that does nothing to advance the plot but deftly showcases Jack’s stupidity. He's got a more-than-decent voice on him too though, carrying multiple musical numbers, and also takes the limelight for the panto staples, including the "convenient bench" scene.
Despite the traditional nature of this pantomime and its fantastical elements, it's impossible to ignore that it's actually set in modern day! Culturally on point, Mother Goose references the cost-of-living crisis, political figures, and unaffordable energy bills (encouraging some energetic audience participation). It continues throughout the lengthy first act but drops off as we enter Gooseland in the second; perhaps a tactic for forgetting the troubles we’re experiencing on our own planet. It makes this panto feel very modern without ever being distracting.
There are excellent musical numbers throughout - including the notoriously tone-deaf John Bishop leading the audience in a rendition of Sweet Caroline - and vocals are strong throughout, particularly from fairies Encanta and Malignia who belt out Barbra Streisand and Donna Summer’s famously difficult-to-sing disco power ballad ‘No More Tears (Enough is Enough)’, outdoing each other at every line.
We're also treated to an additional Tolkien-alumni, as Adam Brown is featured as both the Goat and the King of Gooseland - Hobbit-fans might recognise him as Ori from the movie trilogy.
Yet you can't deny that this is the McKellen and Bishop show. The two play off each other superbly, and despite Sir Ian being the main draw, it's actually Bishop who carries much of the show, often breaking character to address the audience directly. His request for us to applaud those who work in theatre that don’t appear on stage was admirable, and went a long way after a pandemic that saw many in the arts lose their income. Bishop puts in an admirable acting performance too - you'd have to opposite McKellen - even movingly reciting Sonnet 18, as he compares Mother Goose to a summer's day...
McKellen, meanwhile, is clearly having fun. It might be tempting to ask, "why is one of the finest actors of our time doing a pantomime?" The answer: "because he can". And he is, of course, brilliant. The programme notes that he's taken influences from the iconic dames and drag acts (From John Inman to Dan Leno, via Danny La Rue and even Les Dawson) that preceded him, and you can see the small nods he's incorporated peppered throughout.
There are self-aware references throughout; McKellen repeatedly suspects orcs are behind their troubles, after hearing inadvertent trigger phrases ("well, that's awks", "Orcs?!"), resulting in adorable apologies to the audience, after being reminded where he is. He is a stunner in bobby-dazzler dresses and head pieces, giving the audience an eyeful more than once. McKellen causes almost every other performer to break character at least once, and we're even treated to a Shakespearean soliloquy. You really get your money's worth with Sir Ian.
If we were to criticise anything, occasionally some of the diction was lost making it difficult at times to understand what characters were saying, with this coming at the expense of a few punchlines. Yet on the whole, this was a night of pure, silly, theatrical fun.