Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

SEC Armadillo, Glasgow

Three stars

Until December 31

Goldilocks and the Three Bears

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

Three stars

Until January 19

Ali the Magic Elf

Tron Theatre, Glasgow

Five stars

Until December 31


The SEC Armadillo, which is the biggest pantomime auditorium in Scotland, has, over the years, achieved a Christmas line-up that is about stable as St Mirren’s ever-changing back four. Over the last six years, the show has been headlined by John Barrowman, David Hasselhoff, The Krankies and, in 2017, Greg McHugh (aka Gary: Tank Commander).

This year (with The Krankies, sadly, retired from the pantosphere), McHugh returns, in the nominal role of Gary the Court Jester, in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. However, from the moment he arrives on stage in a baby Sherman tank, it’s reassuringly clear that he isn’t going to stray far from his much-loved TV persona.

McHugh is a safe pair of hands in which to place this big stage panto. His performance is, reliably and hilariously, camp as a proverbial row of tents. His blinged-up musical number Blame it on the Gary (a fabulous parody of Mick Jackson’s 1970s disco hit Blame it on the Boogie) is a memorable highlight of the show.

McHugh’s co-star Doon Mackichan (who takes the role of uber-baddie Queen Lucretia) brings a welcome, cleverly creative twist to proceedings. The Two Doors Down star has long been an innovative force in British comedy (from the path-breaking, female-led sketch show Smack the Pony to the brilliantly bonkers Toast of London). Here, she plays the morally degenerate witch with a delicious, self-confident loucheness that is usually the preserve of male actors.

Many of the show’s designs (Mackichan’s superb, Devil wears Prada costume aside) are decidedly lacklustre; the rubbish animal suits and masks, for example, would embarrass an average am-dram production. Its script also gets the balance wrong between family entertainment and end-of-the-pier vulgarity.

The ever-impressive Frances Thorburn is in fine voice, but her Snow White is costumed as if by Disney, and given a disappointingly traditional lack of personality. Ultimately, this is a big auditorium panto which has some nice set pieces, but too little momentum to overcome the venue’s lack of theatrical atmosphere.

If the SEC show takes family theatre into unnecessarily lewd territory, the Edinburgh King’s Goldilocks and the Three Bears indulges itself, almost constantly, in the kind of banal (and for the parents, carers and teachers of young children, embarrassing) single entendres that would make a Carry On film producer blush.

There’s a school of thought that this sort of material is perfectly permissible because it goes over kids’ heads. As a parent of two, now grown-up, children, I beg to differ. You don’t have to be a prude to think that our big theatres can do better than this type of low grade, trashy humour at Christmas time.

That said, the Edinburgh panto is not without its qualities. As bad luck would have it, I attended a performance on the solitary day on which King’s favourite Andy Gray was missing due to ill-health. The cast, led by Grant Stott and Dame Allan Stewart, handled the absence with admirable professionalism.

The show resets the story, with glorious improbability, to an Edinburgh circus, which is home to the talented Gillian Parkhouse’s Goldilocks. Stott is hilarious as the evil, terribly accented, German (yet Hibs-supporting) circus master Baron Von Vinklebottom.

Jordan Young’s clown, Joey, brings great energy to an excellently (and colourfully) designed (if somewhat male-dominated) production. It’s just a pity that the show is so wedded to the bawdier side of the music hall tradition.

By stark contrast, Ali the Magic Elf, director Andy Arnold’s show for three to six-year-olds at the Tron Theatre, is quintessentially classy theatre. Built around the prodigious talents of the brilliant Ramesh Meyyappan, it is an absolutely enchanting production.

Ali (like Meyyappan himself) is Deaf. So, the children have to communicate with him using a few basic elements from British Sign Language. This clever and gentle form of audience participation helps the charming, but somewhat hapless, elf to make the toys in time for them to be loaded onto Santa’s sleigh.

Before that’s achieved, however, Meyyappan (who is, in his skilful physical comedy, like a cross between Charlie Chaplin, Peter Sellers and French theatre master Jacques Lecoq) treats us to a wonderful series of mishaps. Whether it’s his problematic breakfast (in which spoons bend and eggs appear in unlikely places) or his humorously failed attempts to make, by turns, a wooden toy elephant, an electric car and a balloon sausage dog, Ali’s fiascos are a rib-tickling delight for young theatregoers.

The piece is played in adorably stylish costumes on a truly lovely elf’s workshop set (all designed by Jenny Booth). Meyyappan is assisted more than ably by excellent actor-musicians Christina Gordon and Simon Donaldson, whose enchanting musical arrangements are played on a range of instruments (including, most beautifully, a harp).

By the time the audience is ringing Santa on his way, one is certain that Ali the Magic Elf is a very special piece of theatre indeed.