First published in The Times, Friday December 22 2017
Comic turns have always taken precedence over the romantic leads in pantomime. Widow Twankey regularly gets higher billing than her own son. Sarah the Cook is generally further up the food chain than Dick Whittington. Even at the ball the Ugly Sisters and Buttons tend to outshine poor Cinderella.
In the case of the Armadillo’s panto, the roll call of comedians and celebrities is brasher and starrier than at any other seasonal offering in Scotland. After all, this is no ordinary festive show, but a “giant pantomime spectacular”.
Now that the Krankies and John Barrowman have taken their inimitable brand of lewd humour to the Manchester Opera House and David Hasselhoff is having a year off from performing Captain Hook, it’s the turn of another well-kent face to shine out from the poster festooning every underground station in Glasgow: the actor Greg McHugh, better known as Gary: Tank Commander.
Pic: Peter Sandground
McHugh’s fake tanned, gloriously camp and good natured Gary was a fixture of the King’s pantomime for a couple of years, and the character recently headed up a live version of the BBC Scotland sitcom at the 10,000-seater Hydro just over the road, so it is no great surprise that the entertainer quickly sets up a great rapport with the up-for-it crowd at the Armadillo. Warmer and less self-involved than some stars, and quick to respond to curveballs from the audience, he makes for an unlikely, goofy hero in the Gerard Kelly mould.
Indeed, McHugh’s biggest challenge comes from the group of young children invited onstage to join him in a few verses of Old MacDonald. “You’re sweatin’!” shouts one small girl, while a six-year-old named Ryan performs an entire section of the song, replacing animal names with “your butt”. For the first time in two hours, a ripple of fear crosses the actor’s terracotta face.
Pic: Peter Sandground
Ryan’s contribution isn’t the crudest part of the show, whose script, written by Alan McHugh and Jonathan Kiley with contributions from the cast, contains some choice innuendo that skates perilously close to what might be considered appropriate for young children. There is also something off-putting about the set-piece scene in the giant’s castle, which falls back on 3D animation that does not interact particularly well with the live element.
If you like your entertainment colourful, brash and energetic, however, you’ve come to the right place. The sets are gaudy, the musical numbers fizz, and the supporting ensemble are required to perform so many costume changes you half-expect them to run on with tunics unbuttoned and skirts tucked into knickers. Gary’s the star, no doubt about that, but he’s rivalled for the audience’s affections by Gayle Telfer Stevens and Louise McCarthy (aka The Dolls) as Gary and Jack’s delightfully OTT aunties, Agnes and Sadie.