Brighton Year-Round 2022
Band – Musical Director James Keaey, Bass, Banjo Sam Bailey, Drummer Stewart Hughes, Guitar, Wind David Meredith.
Directed by Cal McCrystal, Set & Costume Designer Liz Ascroft, Choreographer Lizzi Gee, Lighting Design Prema Mehta, Sound Designer Ben Harrison, Puppet Designer & Maker Christopher Barlow, Music Supervisor Mark Crossland
Casting Director Anne Vosser, Associate Director & Choreographer Amanda Stoodley, Props Supervisor Lizzie Frankl for Propworks, Costume Supervisor Sarah Holland, Wigs, Hair and Makeup Betty Marini, Associate Props Supervisor Zoe Wilson for Propworks, Videographer Chris Lince.
After December 11th on tour
Jonathan Harvey. Mother Goose. That should give us pause even before Ian McKellen’s uttered. Or before two pin-drops moments of Shakespeare. That Jonathan Harvey who wrote Beautiful Thing and Canary, in the teeth – initially – of Clause 28. Panto’s a serious business. Oh no…
So after John Bishop’s warm-up we’re introduced to the good fairy Encanta (Sharon Ballard, powerful warm soprano) and bad Malignia (Karen Mavundukure, characterful, edgy singing with a skirl to it) challenging each other in pink and green lighting (shout for necessarily outstanding lighting cues by Prema Mehta). Singing here from about ten of the principals is outstandingly fine and as you’d hope, there’s not only no weak link, we’re rather spoiled since all singing is brief, and luxuriating’s not an option. Especially if we get to sing along (wait!).
Mother Goose (Ian McKellen), Vic Goose (John Bishop), (Jack) Oscar Conlon-Morrey and their brood of feathery and furred waifs shiver in a Debenham’s Store – Liz Ascroft’s dazzling street-set trumped by backdrops an airline jet with a beak (Goose Airways, to anticipate!), drop-downs and a gallimaufry of gorgeous costumes. Oh, and cute powered puppets.
They’re waiting to be booted out by the Energy Company (which ever after, like the traditional “he’s behind you!” we’re enjoined to refrain in decibels) till in wanders Cilla Quack (Anna-Jane Casey) from Gooseland, laying a golden egg which dispatches Cruella Braverman-seeming-Energy Company (decibel please) Jill (Simbi Akande) who promptly converts, falls in love with Jack and retrains as an airline pilot. Makes sense. Both sing beautifully. The four-strong band, led by James Keaey produce a big but detailed sound, never overwhelm the singing.
Tempted by Malignia, benign Mother Goose falls (it’s very Paradise Lost somewhere) and donates wealth-making Cilla against her wishes to Malignia, which means as we discover she’s banished and imprisoned in Gooseland for not prompting the utmost moral behaviour in her recipients. Bet won via a brief distraction of fleeing lovers in a wood (Mother Goose doesn’t bless Jack and Jill) populated by “behind you!” ghosts that goes nowhere – there’s a scene-change – but does showcase more of Akande, continually catapulted off a bench, and Conlon-Morrey.
Cue a bewildering of stagings as Mother Goose enjoys the Oscars, the World Cup (this is before, remember…) and comes away empty. Cue remorse and mounting rescue bids from Gooseland, and confronting the dread King Goose. It’s there that caged Anna-Jane Casey’s Cilla delivers the show-stopper of several numbers: ‘Don’t Rain on My Parade’ – her “All by myself” underscores this panto’s turned into a musical in a soaring soprano melisma. Leading actors here hail straight from West-End musicals.
So much for dazzling intricacies. There’s plenty of political jokes. Malignia – fairies delight in rhymed couplets – spits out ”Truss” as an end-rhyme, and there’s a few such gags, the Energy Company amongst them, as is traditional. Harvey, who could easily weave in much else, chooses to layer the panto with more double-entendres than a Tiramisu, and “touching the sides” takes on meanings that quite possibly children will get. It’s delirious.
The most affecting work is the simplest. McKellen, even so feathered and dazzling with costume changes showing a very good leg, brings a warmth, indeed truth to his gently melancholic role. He lights the stage before some will know who he is. Bishop – “and he didn’t even go to drama school” McKellen beams – is absolutely on point and when McKellen breaks into Shakespeare, Bishop answers with his own. In both moments, there’s absolute silence. There’s a masterclass somewhere, nothing to do with panto.
Quite apart from animal props – the donkey identifying as a llama looming tallest – there’s sparkling performances from Monkey (gyrating Mairi Barclay), Goat (forlorn Adam Brown), Bear (Gabriel Fleary, gracefully awkward), Bat (Richard Leeming blinking in swoopy pale-flesh bat apparel), Puss (Genevieve Nicole, straying into the wrong panto), Cricket (Laura Tyler in virid green, fearing herself endangered), Penguin (climate-anxious Becca Francis), Tortoise (Shailan Gohl, particularly shelled by shell-jokes). This is, as it has to be, an all-singing, dancing troupe. And the number and kind of marriages we end with are blissful.
You’d expect expense unspared here, but it never clutters the stage. Proportion is rich, not gaudy, and proclaims its rationale as well as apparel. Despite mentions of Disney, there’s little evidence of high-tech high-jinks, though the puppets are melting. What Harvey’s gone for is a light-touch to the heart, and with the music allows the actor-singers – McKellen sings affectingly at one point – to flower suddenly on a pure panto stage.
This is more than outstanding panto: it’s an affirmation of something that panto here welcomes in, in our time uniquely invoking layers as only Elizabethan/Jacobean drama can. Perhaps that explains its unique hold on the British public from where it sprang.