Theatre in Wales

Theatre, dance and performance reviews

This Goose Flies High

Mother Goose

The Wardens , Aberystwyth Arts Centre , January-08-08
Mother Goose by The Wardens Pantomime has been invaded by the big guns. Three years ago Sir Ian McKellen took on the part of Widow Twanky to Maureen Lipman’s Wishee Washee. Writers Mark Ravenhill, Jonathan Harvey and Stephen Fry have written fresh scripts, in turn reported as good, feeble and filthy. Fry’s “Cinderella” was called clever-clever and knowing, unwisely deconstructing the panto genre while trying to do one. Not so “Mother Goose”; a beauty of Aberystwyth’s annual production is that director Richard Cheshire, and his long-established team, know exactly what they are doing and who they are doing it for. More importantly, his audience knows it too.

Welsh theatre writer and academic Ruth Shade has eloquently championed a particular form of popular theatre, entirely outside the Arts Council ambit. If “Mother Goose” doesn’t exemplify it, nothing does. First it is local. Snippets of 2008 get an airing. The Inland Revenue’s mislaid twenty-five million bank account details, television’s rigged voting scandals and “computer says no-o-o” are all subject for jokes, but for the rest both cast and jokes are familiar.

Good and evil are represented once again by David Blumfield and Julie McNicholls as Demon Misery and Fairy Hapus. Sparring in verse, Demon ends with “I don’t care for your views/ Go back to your day job on the Cambrian News.” Some of the puns are groaningly terrible- “bailiff” and “bay leaf”, “yeoman” and “yo’man”, “right toe” and “righto”, “picnickers” and “pink knickers”- but with an audience that starts at age four they are as good an introduction as any to the world of pun and wordplay . As for the old jokes the audience still loved: Spud “I’m scared of the ghosties and ghoulies.” Corny “I don’t want to be caught by the ghosties.” Spud “And I don’t want to be caught by the-…-“

The uncredited script is more of a portmanteau than other pantomime productions, with a score of musical numbers borrowed to fit the talents of the dance group. Under Rachel West’s choreographic direction they put on a brilliant and eclectic display from disco-electric in “Blame it on the Boogie”, to robotic, next to a slightly aimless-looking Darth Vader, to full faux-Broadway in “One” from “A Chorus Line.”

Once again there were comic scenes shamelessly re-cycled from four or five years back. Richard Cheshire and the indispensable, but sadly soon to be lost, David Kendell put on their inimitable “Nightie, nightie, pyjama pyjama” scene. The ghost and “Ghostbusters” scene in Act 2 was adored by the audience.

A first night brings its own particular adrenalin; happily maestro Richard Cheshire has no fear of the spontaneous ad lib. When a joke has not quite hit home “Think about it” he tells us. When, in character, he drops to his knees to plea not to be evicted, he turns his head to the audience “This is the best bit of real acting you’ll see all evening.”

The show has a cast of forty-six, of whom only fifteen get a programme picture credit. I believe it was Rachel Crane who belted out a short solo in the second act. For 2009, a big meaty solo number, please. Ioan Guile made a very welcome return after an absence, although if anything the role of Spud was too small for his infectiously twinkling stage presence.

One of the features of the Aber productions is that it gives gifted young performers extended audience experience over a couple of weeks. Two years ago Charlotte Griffiths was an affecting Beauty (as in “and the Beast”) and last year returned as a sassy gang hanger-on in “West Side Story”. This year, in the role of Jilly, Lauren Ricketts exuded a joyous stage presence. Whether joyousness gets to be taught at drama school, or whether it comes innate, does not really matter. In the duet “Can you feel the love tonight?” she and Craig Miller looked utterly carried away in love. The return of both to the Aber stage would be very welcome.

Never play with children and animals; Priscilla the goose, played by Lorna Lowe, was an eye-catching eight foot creation by Dugg Batchelor who learned his craft at the Henson studio. In the sing-along number David Kendell was near but not quite upstaged by a trio of charming child-sized tap-dancing eggs.

Musically, the band under Elinor Powell, had expanded to at least a fivesome. In this context, not least to a musically challenged reviewer, the function of the band is to get it out and let the dancers do their numbers. “Mother Goose” is, unusually, for a pantomime a moral tale, posing the choice between beauty and happiness (Britney, Paris and co get yourselves some tickets now.) Louise Amery at a white piano touchingly gave Mother Goose a poignant musical motif, “Plaisir d’Amour”, I think.

By chance I happened to see three days before another pantomime a way to the East of Aberystwyth. That too was in a county town, midsize, with a university attached, and the differences were illuminating. Their “Aladdin” had sheen and polish, pressed all the right buttons, and was a five star show by any standard. But it went without the goo factor (Aberystwyth never, ever skimps on the wallpapering scene) and for sheer, unbridled Dame-power, I am sorry Oxford, but this time it is Aberystwyth out in front.

“Mother Goose” runs until Saturday 19th January.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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