Mother Goose, Duke of York’s Theatre, 2022
Photo by Manuel HarlanIan McKellen (Mother Goose)
  • Theatre, Panto
  • Recommended

Review

‘Mother Goose’ review

4 out of 5 stars

Ian McKellen steals the show – as you’d jolly well expect – in this delightful trad panto

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Time Out says

Gandalf murmurs ‘orcs’ as he looks out over the audience and ominous music plays in the background. He does this wearing a pinny, a hand to a bosom of panto proportions and an unruly curly wig perched perilously on his head. Transferring to the Duke of York’s Theatre after a short warm-up in Brighton, this is acting legend and superstar Ian McKellen sending up one of his most famous film roles in his latest stage gig, as he swaps the ‘sir’ for ‘dame’ – Mother Goose.     

Rejecting the arch knowingness of, for example, the slick blockbuster stylings of the annual Palladium panto, this ‘Mother Goose’ is an unashamedly traditional affair. Get ready for plenty of winks at the audience and some welcome jibes at energy companies and our current pantomime of a government, but not in a sharply meta way. Entertainment is key, as Jonathan Harvey’s script lovingly embraces music-hall humour. But that doesn’t mean it’s socially conservative. Harvey makes sure to queer every corner of the show in an applaudable way.

McKellen’s Mother Goose, her husband Vic (comedian and actor John Bishop) and son Jack (Oscar Conlon-Murray) have hit hard times as they try to keep their Oxford Street shelter for orphaned animals financially afloat. Fortuitously, good witch Encanta (Sharon Ballard) sends Anna-Jane Casey’s golden-egg-laying Cilla Quack their way. But baddie Malignia (Karen Mavundukure), however, is cacklingly confident that sudden riches will corrupt the family.

The show blends bursts of energetic choreography by Lizzi Gee, Prema Mehta’s colourful lighting design and Ben Harrison’s playful sound design into something comfortingly familiar. Director Cal McCrystal doesn’t try to shock and awe us into submission. It’s all invitingly knockabout – staged to showcase performances. The ensemble cast enthusiastically play the show’s menagerie of animals. Although inventively costumed, there are arguably too many. Really only Richard Leeming’s socially awkward bat and Genevieve Nicole’s Puss stand out. (Nicole also gives a delightful turn as Camilla Parker Bowles. No spoilers.)

The show throws inflatable balls, sweets and pop hits like Lady Gaga’s ‘Born This Way’ at us. It keeps the camp momentum going and is all infectious fun but can’t completely disguise some meandering pacing and a deficit of gags that really hit their mark. Maybe it’s just Christmas spirit, however, but this show’s whole adds up to more than the sum of its parts. The central cast have chemistry and charisma to spare. Conlon-Murray is basically a human cartoon as Jack, Casey gives her goose some gleeful gander and Bishop deploys his ‘what am I doing here?’ schtick to winning effect.  

But, let’s be honest, you’re probably going to see this panto for McKellen. And he doesn’t disappoint. As Mother Goose, he owns the stage in a tour-de-force of self-parody, comic timing and a perfectly tuned sense of impending chaos. It’s a generously slapstick performance, filled with a genuine sense of love for the genre. And he even throws in a childhood memory and some Shakespeare that unexpectedly moves you amid the surrounding hullabaloo. He is the beating heart of this warmly inclusive and winningly open-handed panto.         

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