”Mother Goose” starring Ian McKellen and John Bishop – review

Anna-Jane Casey, John Bishop and Ian McKellen in Mother Goose
Anna-Jane Casey, John Bishop and Ian McKellen in Mother Goose
© Manuel Harlan
Is this the most hotly anticipated pantomime of them all? Though almost every regional theatre has its own festive fare, and this won’t even be the only Mother Goose in a five mile radius when it opens at the Duke of York’s Theatre later this month, it has already planned to tour long beyond Christmas Day. Such is the demand to see Gandalf in a dress.

The draw, of course, is the return of beloved theatrical stalwart Ian McKellen to a pair of kitten heels as pantomime dame and titular heroine, Mother Goose. The generous proprietress of an animal shelter, Caroline Goose is given the chance to forsake her principles in exchange for fame and fortune that will transform her from homespun housewife to international superstar in one of pantomime’s more transparent moral tales.

Trading in skulls and daggers for hair-rollers and rouge, there seems to be no role to which McKellen can’t bring profundity and pathos. Even with affectionate nods to his well-loved wizardry in the Lord of the Rings franchise, and an opportunity for some Shakespeare, it’s everything you’d never expect from the acting titan that proves the most thrilling. Whether fronting a tap number with faux exhaustion or arriving in lingerie to play a surprisingly racy boudoir scene, McKellen appears to be having enormous fun and his performance is a privilege to enjoy.

Opposite him as devoted husband Vic Goose, John Bishop is the perfect straight man in every sense, while the endlessly expressive Oscar Conlon-Morrey plays their son, Jack, with nothing short of unfaltering commitment. Both Conlon-Morrey and company standout Genevieve Nicole are perfect for panto and at the height of their powers here as they render ‘camp’ a high art. An ensemble of eccentric, anthropomorphised animals (wittily attired by Liz Ascroft) offer an abundance of talent, amongst which Richard Leeming’s bat is a dry, offbeat highlight.

Though surely precious few are equipped to steal a scene from McKellen’s capable hands, Anna-Jane Casey enters stage left and drops into an immediate split, determined to do just that. A late addition to the cast, Casey arrives fresh from a tonally polar-opposite performance in Cabaret, and is utterly joyous here as Cilla Quack, a perimenopausal goose in crocs. Casey lands the definitive musical moment of the show with a barnstorming rendition of “Don’t Rain on My Parade” in the second act.

The songs chosen draw largely from golden age musical theatre and 80s power ballads. Though entirely unexpected, McKellen’s heartfelt few bars of “Tomorrow” are surprisingly affecting. Scorching vocals are delivered meanwhile by Sharon Ballard and Karen Mavundukure, though the latter’s fairy villainess is somewhat dwarfed by the broader characterisations onstage.

Between riotous laughs, it is easy to question how much of this show, though billed as a family pantomime, has actually been conceived with children in mind. The heavy helping of innuendo may fly squarely over the heads of the younger audience members, but they remain surprisingly uncatered to, save for an early slop scene and Simbi Akande gamely pratfalling off a bench. Even the obligatory audience singalong opts for a drunken football chant.

Jonathan Harvey has penned this purposefully, a reasonably politicised script that namechecks various Conservative MPs and offers playful allegories for ongoing social issues. In some ways more musical comedy than pantomime, there is surprisingly little audience participation but plenty of projectiles. This is, perhaps, the theatregoers’ pantomime, a little more sophisticated, genuinely sincere and bursting with musical talent. Long-time abstainers of the genre will be hard-pressed to keep from beaming.

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