Mammy Goose/ Sleepin’ Cu­tie

★★★★☆ / ★★★★☆ Tron, Glas­gow, un­til 6 Jan­uary Mac­robert Arts Cen­tre, Stir­ling, un­til 31 De­cem­ber

The Guardian - G2 - - Live Reviews - Mark Fisher

Is pan­tomime a re­ac­tionary form, mired in tra­di­tion and stuck with crowd­pleas­ing fa­mil­iar­ity, or can it also be rad­i­cal? Johnny McKnight, a one-man panto pow­er­house who has been turn­ing out two scripts a year for more than a decade, sees it as pop­u­lar theatre at its most sub­ver­sive. He loves the panto trap­pings – the lurid spec­ta­cle, the call-and-re­sponse, the dance rou­tines and, above all, the com­edy – but tied in with his vo­ra­cious ap­petite for pop-cul­ture trivia is a ra­zor-sharp sense of an ever-chang­ing world.

Each year, he al­ter­nates play­ing the dame be­tween Glas­gow and Stir­ling. This time, he’s at the Tron as Mammy Goose, a woman who speaks with the voice of the dis­pos­sessed. For­ever on the bot­tom of the lad­der, she is torn be­tween nur­tur­ing her fam­ily and ful­fill­ing her own car­nal de­sires, mak­ing her equal parts lov­able and for­mi­da­ble. Wield­ing her wit as an of­fen­sive weapon, she lets nobody get above their sta­tion.

There’s pol­i­tics in that, of course, but it’s in the sly tweaks of the story that McKnight chal­lenges tra­di­tion. Most glo­ri­ously in Mammy Goose, rav­ish­ingly de­signed by Kenny Miller and ex­cel­lently scored by Ross Brown, he gives the cen­tral love story to the two male leads. And nobody minds.

When a mop-topped Dar­ren Brown­lie as Jack Goose falls for Ryan Fer­rie’s new-ro­man­tic Will Vis­age, the only is­sue is that Will is the son of the bad­die (a fab­u­lous Lau­ren El­lis-Steele). When they can sing, dance and wise­crack as well as th­ese two, the crowd has no choice but to roar its ap­proval. Only Julie Wil­son Nimmo’s hi­lar­i­ous Lucy Goose is slow on the up­take; the rest of us seem to have some­thing in our eye.

McKnight likes to play games with gen­der stereo­types and, in his re­work­ing of Sleep­ing Beauty as Sleepin’ Cu­tie on the big Mac­robert stage, he can’t bring him­self to place his hopes in the hand­some prince. How to jus­tify back­ing the ar­che­typal male stranger when Bon­nie, the hero­ine – the one we ac­tu­ally care about – is doz­ing for a pas­sive 100 years un­der the witch’s spell? He has two an­swers.

The first is to ob­serve this is Bon­nie’s 21st birth­day, mean­ing her fate­ful chris­ten­ing takes place in the postSpice Girls 1990s where girl power has taken off but not yet #MeToo. Some fem­i­nist con­scious­ness­rais­ing still has to be done. With Ali­son Brown’s cos­tumes draw­ing on the de­signer ex­cess of the 90s celebrity, we are in the era of big-bucks Hello! pho­to­shoots. He­len McAlpine’s lowhipped witch, Quee­nie McMeanie, might have had her way had she not stip­u­lated a press ban at the chris­ten­ing. The idea of ban­ish­ing the pa­parazzi is too much for this royal fam­ily.

McKnight’s sec­ond trick is to field a prin­ci­pal boy in the form of Katie Bar­nett’s thigh-slap­ping Prince Charm­ing who is a par­ody of ar­ro­gant mas­culin­ity. Pri­mar­ily in love with him­self and his hi­lar­i­ously warped up­per-crust ac­cent, he as­sumes things will go his way. Nor does he ever get Bon­nie’s name right. Bar­nett is as ec­cen­tri­cally funny as she is in her first-half turn as the au­to­cratic Queen Jeg­ging.

Prince Charm­ing’s sin­gu­lar lack of ro­man­tic pow­ers clears the field for Robert Jack’s Jester to de­mon­strate the mean­ing of true love. For all the span­gly ir­rev­er­ence of Julie Ellen’s high-oc­tane show, the wish-ful­fil­ment fan­tasy is gen­uinely touch­ing.

When they can sing, dance and wise­crack this well, the crowd has no choice but to roar its ap­proval

Panto pow­er­house ... Johnny McKnight (cen­tre) in Mammy Goose

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