Review: Weans in the Wood – Macrobert Arts Centre, Stirling

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First published in The Times, Monday November 28 2016

Four Stars

If Johnny McKnight, the playwright, performer and artistic director of Random Accomplice, could split himself into multiple clones, he would probably be called upon to write, helm and play the dame in half a dozen pantomimes across Scotland every festive season. As the ability to be in several places at once isn’t yet de rigueur, theatres must take it in turns for the full McKnight Christmas package of script, direction and virtuosic improvised banter.

This year, the man himself will be donning pink fright wig and sequins for The Snaw Queen at Glasgow’s Tron, but he has provided a sparkling script for Julie Ellen’s big show at the Macrobert, and even lends his dulcet tones as the disembodied voice of the narrator. Be advised: almost all traces of the traditional seasonal tale Babes in the Wood, with the supporting cast drawn from the Robin Hood legend, have been jettisoned here. McKnight’s script is instead a mishmash of various classic fairy stories, with elements of Harry Potter and Ben and Holly’s Magical Kingdom thrown in for good measure.

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Pic: Peter Dibdin

The plot, which follows the quest by Merlina (Mark McDonnell, stepping ably into McKnight’s killer heels), headmistress at Magic School, to retrieve the source of all good magic from the villainous Sheriffina Nottingham (Helen McAlpine) is, as ever, mere pretext for some up-to-date gags, high-energy musical numbers and raucous interactions with the audience. For those who know the Macrobert’s panto parallel universe, “Stirling Stella”, there is much here that is reassuringly familiar, not least among the principal players.

 

Robbie Jack is resplendent in lavvie-brush hair and stripy tights as resident numpty and everyone’s bestie, Hans-No-Solo. As the heroic Gretel and Little Red, Katie Barnett and Dawn Sievewright make their various song-and-dance set pieces look effortless. McAlpine is a deliciously wicked, funny baddie while McDonnell is so personable as the sexually voracious dame that, like McKnight, he is able to drag unsuspecting men out of the stalls with impunity.

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Pic: Peter Dibdin

Mention must be made, too, of the 15-strong young company, drilled to precision for musical numbers ranging from Justin Bieber to Prince and Sheena Easton, by Karen Martin, the choreographer, and wonderfully over the top costumes, designed by Alison Brown. And Ellen’s noisy, fast-paced production also gains greatly from a brave and subversive ending that unapologetically yanks the pantomime tradition into the 21st century.

 

Box office: 01786 466666, to December 31

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