First published in The Times, Tuesday December 13 2016
Perth’s lovely Victorian theatre may have been closed for refurbishment for the past couple of years, but this hasn’t prevented Scotland’s oldest repertory company from mounting its successful annual pantomime. For this year’s production, the shelf-like stage of the city’s concert hall has once again been transformed with the addition of a proscenium arch and layers of painted flats.
Also present and correct are the comic pairing of Barrie Hunter as the dame, Senga McScruff, and Harry Ward as her soft-hearted son, Sandy. The duo enjoys the lion’s share of the best gags from Alan McHugh’s script while modelling some of the designer Ken Harrison’s brightest and daftest costumes. McHugh and Ian Grieve, the director, have also built in a couple of opportunities for Hunter and Ward to show off their musical playing abilities. The sight of a dame in towering pink wig and billowing frock jamming away on bass guitar is not something you’re likely to find on any other Scottish stage.
Pic: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan
While the topical asides, scatological jokes and interactive elements that underpin the show, still enthuse the up-for-it audience, overall this isn’t a vintage year for the Perth company, not least when compared to the sumptuous delights of last year’s Beauty and the Beast. McHugh’s determination to transport the traditional tale to familiar surroundings, with the inevitable references to Murray’s Pies and the recent closure of McEwen, the venerable department story, is made at the expense of narrative coherence.
The premise, in which the Fair City is overrun with rats, quickly peters out, with the principals instead embarking on a trip to sell sweeties to the mighty Sultan Vinegar (Ryan Paterson). John Winchester, who might have made for an appealing lead, finds himself almost entirely incidental to the action. Other elements in the disjointed scenario include the appearance of a cockney princess with a penchant for Scotsmen and an underwater sequence, which seems thrown in purely so that Senga can pluck a fish from her cleavage and utter the immortal line: “What’s a nice plaice like you doing in a girl like me?”
The story may not entirely hang together, and some of the scenes feel a little stiff and under-rehearsed, but there are compensations in the musical numbers, choreographed by Lynne Bustard, with fine support from an energetic young company. Eleanor Griffiths takes the singing honours as the villainous Queen Rat, while Helen Mackay is a joy as Dick’s kitty with attitude.