images © Manuel Harlan.
Right, let’s see how far we can get without eggs-austing the entirely predictable panoply of puns here, shall we?
Being a production that harkens as a throwback to panto tradition of old – in particular, taking its caravan of funny up and down the country over a period of several months – this is no strictly seasonal bird. As The Hobbit star Adam Brown, on scene-stealing form, quips late on, this particular goose has legs that stretch on until Easter.
And what glorious, fulsome legs they are.
This is as full-throated, uproariously funny and pitch-perfectly delivered as pantomime gets. Not a moment or beat is wasted, the laughs come thick and fast and, perhaps most impressively, the star power of Mother Goose’s leading duo is more than matched by the wattage of an insanely talented supporting cast and company.
We’re gushing, it’s true – but it’s deserved. This is a slice of family entertainment that effortlessly hits all the right notes – including an embarrassment of riches when it comes to show-stopping vocals – and lands its laughs and silly set pieces with relish.
It is, quite simply, perfect panto fare.
The big name draws here are undoubtedly ‘Gandalf’ himself, Ian McKellen and Scouse funny-man John Bishop. McKellen’s affinity for the stage, and visible love for the craft of pantomime in particular, anchors and steadies the entire piece. He will not, one assumes, mind my saying that he has extensive form here – his Widow Twankey now practically an instituation (including recently reviving her for his celebrated Ian Mckellen On Stage tour).
As the titular dame, his instincts for when to take it big (ohh-err) or play it smaller, subtle, even deadpan, are second-to-none. He’s undoubtedly a key reason why many will flock to watch a pantomime long after the last of the Christmas ‘pud is gone, and he certainly doesn’t disappoint. Thankfully, the show around him affords plenty of opportunity to let his hair down (or even his bra off, in a suitably bravura and bonkers curtain closer) and whether he is serving up Beefeater femme fatale realness, strutting his stuff to Right Said Fred, or just engaging in some of Mother Goose’s many panto staples (see: a zany kitchen calamity of misinterpretations and crossed purposes), Mckellen’s ‘Caroline Goose’ etches herself as another adorable, hilarious, definitive dame for the ages.
“Mckellen’s ‘Caroline Goose’ etches herself as another adorable, hilarious, definitive dame for the ages.”
Bishop plays the straight man, ‘Father’ Goose – ‘Vic’ – with gameness and a self-deprecating charm that never wears thin. Goose shrewdly affords him the chance to deliver some of his more conventional stand-up, solo style, which is characteristically solid, but it’s really when he bounces off the madness around him in suitably dry fashion that his everyman approach really works. Naturally, there are digs at the accent, Bishop’s signature elocution (or, dare I say, lack thereof) and even his comparative acting inexperience, too.
As mentioned, perhaps the most delightful takeaway here is how, buoyant and hilarious as they are, this isn’t a show that rests too heavily on the shoulders of its celebrity headliners. In fact, there’s a strong argument to be made that you could excise Mckellen and Bishop from it altogether and, painful though that may be, the rest of the cast are so energised and top-drawer, that it would still fall as an easy recommendation.
“Perhaps the most delightful takeaway here is how, buoyant and hilarious as they are, this isn’t a show that rests too heavily on the shoulders of its celebrity headliners.”
Very few go to panto for the plot, but the serviceable mould of the ‘Mother Goose’ fable – kindly carer of animals, about to be thrown off of her land, inherits golden egg-layer who, quite literally, changes her fortunes – here really pulls in the talents of every supporting character, bit part and ensemble member. McKellen’s menagerie of animal charges are all distinctive, idiosyncratic and given plenty of individual moments to shine – be it, say, Mairi Barclay’s deliciously dramatic chimpanzee, Genevieve Nicole’s sassy ‘Puss in Boots’ (not to mention her barnstorming, crackpot take on Camilla, Queen… consort?) or Richard Leeming’s gleefully awkward Bat. Many are on multiple-role duty. All are terrific. By the time stage and screen veteran Anna-Jane Casey, as the perimenopausal ‘Cilla Quack’, is belting out her rendition of Funny Girl’s ‘Don’t Rain On My Parade’, or sending up Les Misérables, you will likely be in stagey heaven.
Other supporting turns completing the roster just as winningly include Oscar Conlon-Morrey as ‘Goose’ son, Jack, and love interest, Jill – played by native Midlander, Simbi Akande. Both deliver some exquisite physical comedy, character work and vocals. Speaking of which, Goose’s resident ‘good’ and ‘bad’ fairies, Karen Mavundukure as the villainous ‘Malignia’, and Sharon Ballard as the kindly ‘Encanta’, raise the roof throughout, including some big sings courtesy of Tina Turner and Barbara Streisand classics, which they absolutely eat up.
Technically, whilst Mother Goose will likely not be the most audacious or visually arresting show out on the road right now, there’s plenty to giggle at and enjoy in Liz Ascroft’s set and costume design, including what may be my single most favourite ‘flat’ ever, in the form of a certain aeronautical landing in Act II. Expectedly, McKellen’s Caroline gets the biggest and funniest frocks, though a special mention must go to a makeover moment for Bishop that got plenty of laughs and appreciation. Christopher Barlow’s myriad animal puppets add some fun and flavour throughout, even if they feel slightly underutilised, whilst choreographer Lizzi Gee injects even some old style tap and Hollywood razzmatazz to some of the showier company numbers littered throughout.
Writer Jonathan Harvey and director Cal McCrystal do a great job in realising what is essentially organised chaos on the stage. There’s a frisson and erratic charge to Mother Goose that makes it feel more spontaneous and anarchic than it doubtless is, and the tautness and instincts of McCrystal’s direction shouldn’t be overlooked here (nor should the performances they elicit from the entire cast).
As befits a contemporary pantomime, the topics and targets of its cheekiness stem far and wide. There are plenty of old familiars, traditional chestnuts and tentpole double entendre, but there’s plenty of cultural references thrown in for fun and mischief, too. McKellen’s Middle-earth antics offer up a running gag, whilst elsewhere, Bishop’s recent tenure in Doctor Who gets a swipe. Naturally, whilst we are given ample warning at the outset, the politico don’t escape unscathed either, with Rishi Sunak, Liz Truss, and even a porcine Boris Johnson and ‘Cruella Braverman’ getting a lashing.
“…the topics and targets of its cheekiness stem far and wide.”
The stars, it seemed, decided to align for Mother Goose. An early drop-out from Mel Giedroyc aside (who has been replaced by the equally-fabulous Casey, anyway), this has proven itself a definitive, must-see panto experience that more than lives up to the hype. An utterly joyous, impeccably-performed evening (or afternoon!) of family entertainment, Mother Goose brings big laughs and bedazzlement with its star leads, but in truth, a surrounding company and ensemble that shine just as bright.
Oh, what the heck, let’s go there…
Go see it, it’s cracking!