Sir Ian McKellen may or may not be a real wizard, but he is certainly a knight in shining armour for theatre.
I’ve seen many a Christmas pantomime, more recently Easter pantomimes, but never before a pantomime that spanned both seasons, with no gap in between.
Mother Goose opened in Brighton early December before a Christmas run in the West End. Since then, the show has continued playing to full houses on a UK tour and is now in its penultimate week at the Lowry, before finally ending a mammoth panto run in Bristol on April 16.
On Wednesday night in Salford the cast has already performed a matinee that day. And still the performers show no signs of tiring – not least McKellen, who tap dances, sings, jokes, palms foam pies, spins innumerable costume changes, and even throws in a Shakespeare soliloquy.
His dame, Mother Goose, arrives on stage with more than a nod to the late northern comic, Les Dawson, wearing a head full of rollers and a handbag over one arm, occasionally pushing up an arm to adjust an ample bosom.
Written by Jonathan Harvey (Coronation Street and Beautiful Thing) the script embraces tradition while placing the genre very firmly in the 21st century. Here the fairytale of a goose that lays golden eggs is set in our cost-of-living crisis, where Mother Goose and her husband Vic (John Bishop) run an animal sanctuary that is under threat because of rising energy bills.
The villain here is ‘the energy company’, a term the audience is invited to shout back with venom. But aside from a reference to Cruella Braverman and a preppy, cake-loving puppet pig called Boris, this is as political as it gets. The focus here is rightly on fun and escapism.
Big-hearted Mother Goose has welcomed all creatures from bats to penguins, even finding space for Puss in Boots who’s ended up in the wrong panto. So, when an injured goose arrives on the doorstep, she puts financial worries aside and lets her in too. It is this twist of fate, orchestrated by two warring fairies (Karen avundukure and Sharon Ballard), that first leads to the couple’s fortune, but could it be their downfall too?
Anna-Jane Casey at first seems wasted as Cilla Quack the Goose, but her musical talents are given room to shine in the second act. Similarly, John Bishop is given freedom to weave in the stand-up for which he’s best known. Like the very best warm-up acts he sets the perfect jovial tone for the evening and keeps it going, leading the audience in a roof-raising rendition of Sweet Caroline and raising the roof again as he puckers up for a lip-smacker with Mrs Goose.
McKellen dazzles throughout, clearly enjoying every second on the stage. At 83-years-old he still has the spark and mischief of a child. His performance both respects the genre that first captured his imagination as a youngster and pushes its boundaries into a chaotic, cheeky and joyous show for all ages. It’s magic.
Mother Goose is at The Lowry, Salford from 5 – 9 April 2023 before continuing to the final venue on the tour Bristol Hippodrome. Be aware that children under 3-years-old will not be admitted to this production.