TESS reviewers are bewitched but never bewildered by this year's pick of the crop
CINDERELLA. King's Theatre, Glasgow until January 18. Pavilion, Glasgow until January 25. MacRobert Arts Centre, Stirling until December 28. His Majesty's Theatre, Aberdeen until January 4
Choosing a pantomime in August for the school to visit in December may be a lottery, but it seems that this year there were no losers. No surprise there - pantomime is the theatre's annual bonanza, the time of the golden goose, and no theatre management can afford to miss out on this precious nest-egg.
This year management has played particularly safe, and stuck with the winning titles. Without Cinderella, it's unlikely we would have pantomime as we know it. There is hardly another story of such appeal, such a range of characters, such a variety of plot.
Four major theatres pinned, or clamped, their hopes on Cinders, and are banking the profits. Stirling's MacRobert repeats last year's successful Dundee production, keeping many of the original company. This version comes from playwright Stuart Paterson, who seems to be single-handedly revising our Christmas drama, and to good effect.
He brings comparative study to scripting pantomime, enriching the original French Perrault version we all know with elements from other interpretations. Sometimes the research shows a little too obviously - three Royal Balls work better in narrative than in action, for example - but his grasp of what every child wants, directed by Hamish Glen and set to music by Gordon Dougall, soon has the school parties at his mercy.
Although modishly democratic in tone (for Paterson, princely titles and heaps of money are no big deal), for a more rooted and covert class warfare go to Glasgow's Pavilion and King's theatres. At the Pavilion, the sets are attractive, the costumes gorgeous, and John Murtagh's direction makes the most of every opportunity. Above all, he has wisely given the Krankies all the room they need to make the show their own and Janette, as Buttons, delivers the goods.
On her first entrance she creates an instant rapport with the young audience and, from then on, revels in the children's delight of her rudery in being "a dirty little boy".
Her performance is in the line of the Glasgow comediennes and taps into the city's fabled warm-heartedness. At the poignant moment when Cinderella has to say goodbye to the desolate Buttons, the seven-year-old girl at the back bellowed with raucous tenderness, "Give him a wee kiss!".
At the King's, Glasgow's Performing Arts Department has a lot to offer. There are quite marvellous sets and costumes from Terry Parsons, a chorus of 12, a list of names headed by Gerard Kelly and Elaine C Smith (a natural for pantomime), and four white Shetland ponies to pull the coach.
Comedy writer Bob Black has refreshed the script, abolishing all cross-dressing. Jan Wilson's wicked stepmother exults in her two hours of opprobrium, but hunky John Leslie ("one of the country's most eligible bachelors") has an uncomfortable moment with the "love at first sight" dialogue.
This is what happens when you "modernise" panto. What works between two high-heeled and stockinged young ladies fails when you swap one for a rugby flanker. All over the country, Cinders' story is being gradually modernised and democratised. How soon before the writers bow to the inevitable, and let her marry Buttons?
Aberdeen wholeheartedly brought back into its bosom Andy Gray as Buttons, the shining star of Cinderella at His Majesty's Theatre. Gray, who also directed the polished production, was greeted with roars of approval.
It set a cracking pace, helped along by plenty of local spice. Where else could you ask "fas fit" (whose foot) the slipper fits?
Vivien Heilbron was a charming and dignified Godmother, enriched by that delightful tangy accent which falls more easily on north-eastern ears than twangs from the south.
But TV's Dr Finlay, David Rintoul, got the strangest audience reaction of the night. Reserved it was; deserved it was not. His entertaining Baron Hardup lines, gestures and expressions were delivered with perfect comedy timing - to be met with a trickle of polite titters.
Undaunted, he squared to the challenge, squeezed his performance a notch higher and, by the time he paired with Buttons for sing songs and sweeties, he had turned the stony faces into friendly appreciation.
Overall, it was a stunning first night, setting a standard future Aberdeen pantomimes might struggle to emulate.