When is a panto not a panto? Well, presumably when Christmas is behind you. That’s the curious nature of Mother Goose, currently at The Lowry in Salford.
Directed by Cal McCrystal, it started out in London in mid-December, and has been touring pretty much constantly since, so much so that The Lowry stint can now tie in all this talk of golden eggs with Easter. But isn’t there something unique about Christmastime, though? Something about that end-of-year air of merriment that suits a panto down to the ground? Is that quite the same come early April?
Fact is, this is expertly delivered entertainment whatever the time of year. A team of skilled performers, notably Anna-Jane Casey, Adam Brown and Oscar Conlon-Morrey, lark, sing and dance their way through the show to great effect. The cast is headed, though, by two big names: unlikely Northern couple John Bishop and Ian McKellen. Both are terrific value, bouncing off each other brilliantly. Who knows, maybe they can’t stand the sight of each other in real life, but on stage the effect is of genuine warmth.
A seasoned panto Dame, McKellen’s pedigree adds a whole new layer to the role: not just a case of ‘it’s really a bloke in that dress’ but’ it’s really that bloke in that dress’. He’s seriously game for a laugh here. Yes, there are plenty of cheeky jokes about his most celebrated roles – and his sexuality – plus audiences can expect to see him deliver both a Shakespearean speech from The Merchant of Venice and Material World by Madonna.
The script is the work of Jonathan Harvey, another Northern lad and acclaimed playwright (Beautiful Thing, Boom Bang-A-Bang, Our Lady of Blundellsands) and a prolific TV scriptwriter (Gimme Gimme Gimme and more than 200 episodes of Coronation Street). Even in a field where barminess is commonplace, his Mother Goose is completely doolally, an oddly-paced beast with seemingly random plot elements materialising and getting discarded throughout. For unfathomable reasons, Mr and Mrs Goose run a sanctuary for abandoned animals in a deserted branch of Debenhams, meaning most of the characters are the needy creatures in question, though not much is ever made of this. The Gooses are pitted against the dreaded Energy Company – little bit of politics, as Ben Elton used to say – except pretty soon they’re not any more.
Caroline Goose (McKellen) has a deep, near-destructive desire to become a star, but this isn’t mentioned until just before the interval when it suddenly becomes relevant. It all makes for a daft, enjoyable cavalcade, though the suspicion lingers that it could do with a bit more of a discernible shape to it. Likewise, the humour is often deliciously camp but occasionally it’s just a bit too unambiguously blue. The laughs could be that bit more universal if the innuendo was dialled down a little and a couple more comic set pieces had been included. There’s not much audience interaction beyond yer basic shouting out, and a few extra tailor-made regional references would have been most welcome.
It’s not exactly uproarious, then, but Mother Goose is never less than great fun, complete with a sense of loose, additional ad-libbing that presumably comes from this long tour approaching its end. Without its two star names the show’s appeal might be much more limited, but that’s not the point. It’s very much a showcase for Bishop and McKellen to muck about having fun on stage, and thankfully the audience is drawn in for the ride. No, it’s not Christmas any more, but it turns out that’s no reason not to have a right old laugh.
Main image by Manuel Harlan
Mother Goose is showing at The Lowry until April 9, 2023. For more information on show times and ticket prices, click here.