Mother Goose – Review – Sheffield Lyceum Theatre
By Clare Jenkins, February 2023
It can’t often happen that a panto dame – all built-up bust and bulbous bottom – recites Shakespeare and the audience falls silent. But this dame is also that theatrical knight of the realm, Sir Ian McKellen. And the audience love him, whether he’s quoting from The Merchant of Venice, referencing his role as Gandalf in the Middle Earth movies, or remembering the magic of his own first experience of theatre, aged eight, at Bolton Grand.
“I knew then that I didn’t want to be where you’re sitting,” he says, gesturing into the Lyceum’s magnificent auditorium, both in-character and out of it. “I wanted to be up here, onstage, making the magic.” And then he breaks, almost tunefully, into ‘Tomorrow’, from the musical Annie.
At 83, he’s still making magic in this, his second panto dame role (the first was Widow Twankey in The Old Vic’s Aladdin nearly 20 years ago). As Mother Goose, he first appears in Cal McCrystal’s production as an Ena Sharples/Les Dawson lookalike, all fake curlers and headscarf, rouged cheeks, ship’s-bow bosom and tightly clutched handbag, plus fluffball poodle on a lead. He’s already been heralded by the eminently affable comedian John Bishop (playing her/his/their husband Vic) in his dual role as compere, giving every impression of enjoying the experience hugely.
“Wading topless into the pool of dreams”
Indeed, everyone onstage seems to be having a whale of a time, full of energy and random songs and equally scattergun jokes about energy companies, derelict stores and morally bankrupt politicians (is that Boris Johnson as Peppa Pig?). Together with the obligatory double entendres about sticks of rock and cockatoos.
Jonathan (Call the Midwife) Harvey’s lively if occasionally strained script sets the action in a deserted Debenham’s store, where Mother Goose runs an animal sanctuary – hence the chorus line-up of animals ranging from a chimp and a bear to a tortoise and a bright green cricket. Plus a goat (Adam Brown, later transforming into a very droll King of Gooseland) and a huge, fluffy llama. “That’s not a donkey, it’s a llama,” says Mother Goose “Yes, but it identifies as a donkey,” Vic retorts.
That’s not the only anti-woke joke. “Are you triggered?” Puss (an excellent and assertive Genevieve Nicole) asks as the animals tell their sad back stories. There are also some rather more obvious gags about fairies, once the political jokes have disappeared.
When the sanctuary is faced with closure over unpaid bills, a menopausal goose called Cilla Quack (the effervescent and gymnastic Anna-Jane Casey) starts laying golden eggs from underneath her ruffled white plumage. But then Mother Goose, by now wearing a full-on scarlet and black Beefeater costume, gets too much of a taste for the high life and sells her soul for fame. The first act ends with her wading topless into the pool of dreams (one of a number of lovely set designs by Liz Ascroft). Ah, yes, age cannot wither him/her/they…
“Waving their wand and whip”
Act Two starts with a clever montage of Photoshopped images showing MG in various glamorous costumes sharing the red carpet with other real-life celebs. It then segues into dizzyingly fast costume-change scenes of her at the Oscars, the World Cup and London Fashion Week. Meanwhile, the ensemble cast are – sometimes chaotically – tap-dancing, kicking giant inflatable footballs and throwing eggs and sweets into the auditorium.
There’s the obligatory messy cake-making scene, which here falls rather pancake-flat despite the exuberant efforts of the dim but exuberant Jack (Doncaster-born Oscar Conlon-Morrey); an unnecessary ‘He’s behind you!’ ghost scene; a surreal and stomach-churning airplane scene; a final scene where the few children around are cajoled up onstage; plus a couple of scenes that don’t seem to go accordingly to plan. But among all the slapstick, who knows?
There are Lord of the Rings jokes about orcs, an appearance by a very horsey Queen Consort, a gag about Judi Bench [sic], the odd touch of old-style vaudeville, and a neat scene where Cilla, Vic and a pink frou-frou-nightie-clad Mother Goose all share the same upended bed. And then there are the good and bad fairies (Sharon Ballard and Karen Mavundukure), belting out their songs, waving their wand and whip, and eventually falling in love and joining the marriage-fest.
“Wry good humour”
Choreographer Lizzi Gee’s song-and-dance routines range from classic Broadway to ‘Boom Shack-A-Lak’, ‘Don’t Rain on my Parade’ to ‘River Deep Mountain High’, with a touch of Busby Berkeley here, a bit of tap-dancing or ABBA disco there.
Eventually, of course, Mother Goose realises the error of her ways, and begs to return to her waifs and strays – cue Portia’s ‘quality of mercy’ speech. The final scene sees her wearing full My Fair Lady costume, toddling down the stage on Vic’s arm before kissing him full on the lips.
An essential ingredient in any panto is audience enthusiasm and participation – and on its first night in Sheffield, the cast couldn’t have wished for a more obliging full house. There couldn’t have been anyone not singing ‘Sweet Caroline’ at the end, arms waving – and that was before the standing ovation.
All told, the show is more of a curate’s egg than a golden goose egg. But having first seen McKellen 45 years ago as Macbeth alongside Judi Dench, it’s quite something to now see him segueing from Coronation Street to Mrs Slocombe to Audrey Hepburn, full of wry good humour and conspiratorial warmth. Here’s an actor determined to die with his Puss-in-Boots on. Though hopefully not before the end of this run in April.
‘Mother Goose’ is at the Sheffield Lyceum until Saturday before continuing its tour in Wolverhampton