Pantos 2018: All the big shows in Dublin, Cork and beyond reviewed and rated
The Snow Queen, Snow White, Robin Hood, Cinderella, Aladdin, Jack and the Beanstalk, How to Catch a Star, and Alice: The Musical
The Snow Queen: Louise Bowden as the Gaiety panto’s icy diva
THE SNOW QUEEN
Gaiety Theatre, Dublin
“This is my panto,” the Snow Queen (Louise Bowden), an icy diva, screams several times in this rambunctious pantomime, a not-so-traditional version of the fairy tale you may know as Frozen.
But she has not reckoned with the gregarious force of Granny Hurdy-Gurdy (the indefatigable Joe Conlan), who, in a series of outfits that get ever more ridiculously stylish as the show goes on, is determined to steal her thunder and thaw the heart of every panto hater.
As writer, director and choreographer, Daryn Crosbie is the creative master of the show, and although this year’s script is not quite as sharp as his usual efforts – the original characters are merely embodied one-line gags – the weaknesses in the story are more than compensated for by the spectacle.
Pauline McCaul’s costume design brings snow demons to life with a freakish Yeti-like frisson, the scenic design – a blend of solid sets and projected surfaces – embellishes the grandeur of the Gaiety Theatre with a frost-patterned mock-proscenium frame, and the special effects extend into the auditorium for some thrilling snowy moments.
The musical numbers pay homage to traditional music theatre. The scene-setting ensemble opening number, which enumerates the various charms of the pantomime form with dizzying speed, is particularly impressive. Crosbie infuses other traditional tropes with a modern sensibility. In a visual nod to the pantomime horse, our narrator (Michael Joseph) is a rainbow-farting, gender-fluid fairy godmother.
There are other politically topical notes – Brexit and vegans get the satirical touch – but Crosbie is happy to indulge the escapist fantasies of children and their grown-ups. As Granny Hurdy-Gurdy reminds us, panto is not just for kids any more. Sara Keating
Runs until January 20th, 2019
SNOW WHITE AND THE ADVENTURES OF SAMMY SAUSAGES & BUFFY
Much avant-garde theatre may aim to subvert the establishment, but when it comes to truly frightening the patriarchy, no show comes close to the Tivoli’s long-running (and Cheerios-sponsored) pantomime. “I can smell the fear among the dads,” cackles the panto’s irrepressible dame Buffy (Rob Murphy), scanning rows of nervous fathers for a suitable target after she first bursts onto the stage. Patriarchal uneasiness aside, however, Snow White is irresistible family entertainment, so gleefully naughty and exuberantly staged is Alan Hughes and Karl Broderick’s production, now in its final year at the venue.
As always in panto, subtlety is at a premium. The story of how Snow White (Keila-Ana Whelan) is threatened by the Evil Queen (Emily Carroll) and rescued by her Prince (Karl Bowe) serves as an excuse for rousing musical numbers and raucous comic performances. The real stars of the show are the gloriously lascivious Buffy and the more conventionally cheeky Sammy Sausages (Hughes), who helps keep things on an even keel for younger audience members. Both characters zing off each other with gags of such a saucy postcard stripe that even Sid James might blush.
Under the direction of Sean Gilligan, the pace rarely flags. Joe Duffy turns in a suitably mock-anguished appearance as the Magic Mirror, albeit in digital form, while Mary Byrne’s real purpose as Fairy Mary is to belt out big songs. A neat trick is used to bring the seven dwarves to life: amidst the Dublin slang of Broderick’s script, they are muppets in a more literal sense. Of particular note are the wonderfully energetic but beautifully controlled dancers, as choreographed by Paul Ryder, who also brings camp glamour to his role of Sparkle.
A show with so many disparate elements runs the risk of being too busy, but production and performances come together wonderfully, indeed hilariously. The musical finale’s segue between the themes from The Benny Hill Show and Strictly Come Dancing captures the atmosphere of popular light entertainment at its most infectious and appealing. By the end, even the most anxious dads (including this reviewer) have given in as they are rounded up on stage by Buffy. Resistance is futile. Mick Heaney
Runs until January 13th, 2019
Helix Theatre, Dublin
Things are bad in Merryville these days. The king is away at war, and Aloisius (the wickedly good Paul Byrom), the local sheriff, has put taxes up again. He has also banned music, and the villagers are so hungry and depressed they have started rioting over bread. So far so very familiar.
This year’s panto from Theatreworx gets top marks for pertinence, with plenty of political jokes for parents to snigger at. Leo Varadkar, Brexit, Ireland’s inability to deal with the weather, feminism and, er, Aoife McGregor: all the major news stories of the past 12 months are there. So too are the popular playground anthems of 2018, with George Ezra’s Shotgun, key songs from The Greatest Showman, and the unavoidable Baby Shark providing a soundtrack for the audience to sing along to, while showing off their Fortnite dance moves.
Unfortunately, in the interval between show-stopping numbers such as the sheriff’s Don’t Stop Me Now, the script, by Karl Harpur and Claire Tighe, lags, and younger children in particular will struggle to engage with the thickening love plot between Robin (Gavin Ryan) and Marian (Ciara Mackey), and the surreal shenanigans of Dame Lola (Chris Coroon). Thankfully, familiar faces such as Aidan Mannion, as the nice-but-dim Deputy Laurel, and fresh reinventions like Orla Jennings’s merry woman, Scarlett, are enough to keep the momentum going until the inevitable happy-ever-after end. Sara Keating
Runs until January 20th, 2019
Everyman Theatre, Cork
Pantomime is a theatrical free-for-all in which production companies enjoy bending traditional material to their often incomprehensible will. The rule is exemplified by the Everyman Theatre’s riotous (and that’s just the audience) version of Cinderella which to avoid any accusations of misrepresentation should properly be called Cinderella and the Golden Egg, or Cinderella and the Goose or indeed any title which hints at this inexplicable confusion of fairy tales. All pantomimes however prefer exploitation to explanation and thus Director Catherine Mahon-Buckley allows the Everyman Cinderella to romp its merry way to goose-feather glory by sending its heroine off to the ball in a coach largely composed of geese.
The transformation of Cinderella from kitchen skivvy to glamour girl is one of the challenges of the story and this feathery unfolding of the carriage is greeted with awe and delight. The triumph of Olan Wrynn’s design is enhanced by the costumes of Jessica Healy-Rettig and by Anth Kaley’s band and there are enough senior infants in choreographers Robert Foley and Kelly-Ann Murphy’s dance troupe to wring every parental heart in the house. Not that they need much wringing: the show offers total engagement and the young audience is so joyously committed to events on stage – the more implausible the better – as to suggest not only that they know the script but that they might have written it, goose and all.
April Kelly-Hackett quacks her way through the madcap mayhem led by Jimmy Brockie as Buttons and breaking around Ciaran Bermingham’s Biddy Murphy. While the action from scullery to ballroom moves faster than might be usual there is no doubting the poise and popularity of Zoe Talbot as Cinderella and Ross MacLeod as the Prince, both handsome, tuneful and with that touch of personal chemistry which strengthens the core of this fresh, colourful and wildly funny pantomime. Mary Leland
Runs until January 13th, 2019
Cork Opera House
The five-star choreography performed by a tinsel-encrusted and apparently tireless chorus line elevates this production from the merely seasonal to the any-time-of-the-year marvellous. Director Trevor Ryan can always be trusted to provide the pantomime clichés of broad double-meaning, bangs and booms and topical references, a compelling villain and an inept hero and the connectivity between stage and audience which guarantees empathy and shatters decibels. That trust is not disappointed, although it would assist some of the pivotal moments if a tiny pause for effect could be inserted occasionally in the repartee. Critical events like the exchange of the new lamps for old could be rescued by simple stage-craft. With such a minimal script as this pace is not always everything but here it is definitely something as Wishy-Washy and his brother Aladdin try respectively to imagine an escape from Nanny Nellie’s laundry business and wealth and marriage to the Princess Jasmine.
While the gilded sets reflect the geographically confused locations of the plot the only place that matters is the cave, with its Genie (a terrific Barry Keenan) and his flying carpet. Swooping and hovering above the stage this magic flooring quietens the auditorium to a hum of wonderment until hilarity is restored by the chase to rescue the lamp from the evil Abenazar (Michael Grennell in fine voice). The unabashed over-acting is justified by the response of at least five hundred children exercising their license to scream. It could be a case of all gong and no dinner, but the singing, the vigorous band under musical director Ronan Holohan, the raking immersive lighting by Drew McCarthy, the radiant colours of Joan Hickson’s glittering costuming, and the dance ensemble’s obvious delight in Ciaran Connolly’s choreography all combine in a presentation resplendent with the good cheer of technical and creative sophistication. Mary Leland
Runs until January 20th, 2019
JACK AND THE BEANSTALK
Grand Opera House, Belfast
Any attempt on a radical new version of the centuries-old tale of Jack the Giant-Killer is something akin to reinventing the wheel. In its latterday reincarnation as Jack and the Beanstalk, the unequal clash between an immense, insatiable cannibal and a gormless country boy has gone through many and varied stage presentations.
In recent years, for all their high octane glitz, glamour and celebrity names, the pantomimes at Belfast’s Grand Opera House have come to feel formulaic, with local regulars like May McFettridge and Paddy Jenkins appearing to be operating on automatic pilot.
This year, however, new director Andrew Wright has gone back to basics. As befits a Qdos show, production values are sky high but the humour and storytelling are gentler, the costumes dazzling with picture-book charm rather than gaudy sequins and the pop-up set changes framed in beautifully painted backdrops.
Folksy visuals combine with 21st century stage technology and Mark Dougherty’s snappy live score. McFettridge’s reinvigorated Dame May, Jenkins’s Farmer Trott and Rikki Jay’s simple Simon create merry hell with tongue-twisting tussles, madcap double dealing and jokes involving wee-wee and farts, while David Bedella’s beetle-browed Fleshcreep lines up in sinister opposition to Joanna O’Hare’s Mother Nature, statuesque in shimmering green.
The insipid, instantaneous love affair between Michael Pickering’s Jack and Georgia Lennon’s Princess Apricot is considerably less interesting than the terrifying lurking presence of the voracious Blunderbore, whose massive, beady-eyed presence invades the second act.
The interval is signalled by May taking off in a helicopter over the heads of the audience on a rescue mission to the top of the beanstalk. And to keep us on our toes, a pair of Italian roller-blading acrobats perform a death defying sequence, which adds little to the narrative but whose sheer daring takes the breath away. Jane Coyle
Runs until January 3rd, 2019
HOW TO CATCH A STAR
The Ark, Dublin
This visually stunning stage adaptation of Oliver Jeffers’s picturebook How to Catch a Star is a tonic after the chaos of the pantomime. Under the direction of Marc MacLochlainn, Branar Téatar do Pháistí eschew the easy option of reproducing the short text and embrace wordless storytelling instead, setting the inspiring, imaginative story against a magical twinkling score from Colm Mac Con Iomaire.
Our hero is Boy, a large-headed, stick-limbed boy with a wondrous capacity for adventure. One night Boy wishes on a star for a star of his very own, and the play charts his attempts to catch one. Encounters with a seagull, adventures on the beach...it is all part of his quest for friendship.
Boy is brought to life by Suse Reibish’s exquisite puppetry, which Grace Kiely and Neasa Ní Chuanaigh animate with graceful gestures of their own. Visible throughout the performance, they create an extra layer of theatricality that older children will love unpacking.
Maeve Clancy’s set and Ciaran Kelly’s concentrated lighting, meanwhile, contribute to a rarefied aesthetic that younger children may struggle to focus on for 45 minutes. However, older kids with an appreciation for beauty (and their grown-up plus-ones) will easily get lost in it. If you have had enough of the flashing lights, popcorn and pandemonium of the panto, this is the show for you. Sara Keating
Runs until December 30th
ALICE: THE MUSICAL
Lyric Theatre, Belfast
Many a time and oft, the unravelling craziness of Brexit has been described as closely resembling Alice’s bewildering experiences at the bottom of a rabbit hole. Never could Lewis Carroll have imagined that, over 150 years later, his nutty, cartoony characters would have taken on new life in the real world.
In this fizzing 20th anniversary revival of Paul Boyd’s Alice: The Musical it is impossible to ignore sly references to everything being in a muddle, nobody having a plan, life never being the same again and the necessity to depose a headstrong female leader, in this case, the manic Queen of Hearts, imperiously played by Allison Harding.
It is difficult to register that a mere seven performers could carry this big, blousy musical with such confidence and aplomb. For some reason, Boyd directs them all to speak with English accents. Ruby Campbell’s sassy Alice is a dead ringer for Mary Poppins, Mark Dugdale’s magnificent Mad Hatter lisps and stutters like a precocious public schoolboy, while Adam Dougal’s sweet-faced March Hare could be straight out of Eastenders. Musically, however, there is not a false note between them, with Campbell and Charlotte McCurry’s slinky, smirking Cheshire Cat narrator sounding as polished as anything on a West End stage.
Production standards are exceptionally high, from Stuart Marshall’s ever-changing sets, Deborah Maguire’s tightly choreographed dance sequences, Paul Keogan’s fluid lighting design and Gillian Lennox and Erin Charteris’s intricate costumes, combining Alice-blue flounces and lace petticoats, with high camp Hollywood glitter and echoes of the illustrations in the original classic.
After a cracking first act, the pace of Act II dips significantly, signalled by much shuffling and fidgeting from small audience members. But a breathless, max volume finale sends everyone out into the winter chill floating on a really terrific night out. Jane Coyle
Runs until January 5th, 2019