First published in The Times, Monday November 29 2021
“I’m a wee bit out of practice,” gasps dame Barrie Hunter, catching his breath and straightening his wig following a strenuous opening number, “it’s been a couple of years.” This moment of witty adlib contains more than a hint of poignancy. It’s hard to believe that two years have passed since audiences cheered and booed along to Perth’s pre-lockdown festive outing, Sinbad.
This year, Hunter once again takes on the mantle of pantomime auteur: writing, directing and having a whale of a time as Bella, the lusty, bumptious sibling to Ewan Somers’s touchingly ingenuous Ella. Festooned throughout in the colours of St Johnstone football club’s home and away kits, these “pure material girls” make their first appearance in extraordinary bustle dresses that appear to have been recycled from tartan shopping bags.
Bella and Ella’s unabashed vulgarity is beautifully complemented by the glamour and malevolence of Helen Logan’s stepmother. The trio performs the funniest number of the night: a rendition of Lady Marmalade, stuffed full of references to Perth landmarks and nightspots, which the audience laps up.
Comic set pieces, sing-alongs and generous displays of flatulence aside; Hunter’s script makes plentiful room for good old-fashioned storytelling and fully fleshed supporting characters. Betty Valencia gives a striking, spirited performance as Cinders, robbed of her birth right by her stepmother, and reduced to skivvying in Horrids, the family department store. She’s well matched with Lewis Winter Petrie’s spritely Buttons, with both young actors more than holding their own alongside Hunter and the other regulars.
In its festive wrapping, this pantomime is unashamedly traditional, with lashings of glitter in Becky Minto’s set, a tight band led by Alan Penman and some infectious showstoppers, choreographed by Chris Stuart Wilson. Hunter takes gentle liberties with the tale, so that the prince, the ball and the glass slipper are all now part of an elaborate hoax dreamed up by Neshla Caplan’s congenial fairy godmother to confound the baddies and restore Cinderella’s fortune. In this version, the story resolves not in marriage but in a celebration of friendship, loyalty and forgiveness, which is heart-warming without being saccharine.
Box office: 01738 621031, to Dec 31. Horsecross.co.uk