Review by Simon Sladen
Oxford Playhouse panto director and writer Peter Duncan comes from a pantomime dynasty. His parents were both prolific producers of the genre and Duncan fondly recalls playing with three golden eggs as a child. These eggs were, of course, from Mother Goose, which is also the subject of this year’s festive show.
The least known of all pantomime titles but the one with the strongest moral message, Mother Goose is a tale for our time asking questions such as ‘Is beauty only skin deep?’ and ‘Can money really buy you happiness?’ Once down and out, Mother Goose’s luck changes when her goose begins to lay golden eggs, but as her wealth increases, her self confidence decreases and she yearns for a different life.
In the Playhouse’s version of the tale, Mother Goose opens with the audience being asked to select which pantomime story they wish to see rather than the usual challenge between Immortals. This rather lengthy prologue stalls the proceedings and appears to have been written in order to compensate for the pantomime’s lack of plot, which is not helped by a rather odd scenic structure.
Rather than culminate in Mother Goose’s glorious transformation from ugly to attractive, Act One ends with the cross-dressed damsel being sent off on a holiday courtesy of the Good Fairy of Garsington. Acting as a diversion in order to flesh out the first act, the round the world trip complete with flying goose merely stalls the action because, as the Good Fairy reminds us, upon her return Mother Goose must still part with her feathery friend having agreed such a deal with the Wicked Witch of Walberswick in return for her beautification.
When the transformation sequence finally arrives in Act Two, it is rather gruesome in nature with a saw, entrails and other bodily parts making an appearance. Post–op, Mother Goose is denied a big showstopper number, but appears as the love child of Ann Widdecombe and Dame Edna Everage complete with voice and idiolect of The Only Way Is Essex’s Amy Childs.
In the title role, Chris Larner makes a welcome return to the Playhouse having previously played Villain in 2009’s Jack and the Beanstalk. Sounding uncannily like Jeremy Vine pre-beautification, his Mother Goose is slightly saucy and very silly yet still manages to achieve the right balance when saying goodbye to her beloved goose Eldorada.
As Eldorada (oh-lay!), Will Hawksworth’s portrayal of the friendly fowl is a joy to behold and proves that he is most certainly one talented up and coming actor to watch out for. His facial expressions and varying posture and gait communicate Eldorada’s intentions and emotions perfectly and along with some Scooby-Doo style speak-honking, Hawksworth’s feathered friend easily wins the hearts of the audience.
With the Dame as the principal character driving the narrative, the cast has a slightly different formation than usual. Tomboy Jilly, played by Nicola Stuart-Hill, is more a female Comic than Principal Girl with her rather foppish lover the Duke’s son trying his best to win her affection. The contrast works particularly well and it is good to see a pantomime embracing new interpretations of the stock roles yet still holding on firmly to the genre’s conventions.
Duncan has created a charming Mother Goose full of heart and manages that rarity of an exciting Principal Boy and Girl romance. However, due to its unnecessary stuffing this pantomime goose is not as golden as it could be.
‘Mother Goose’ plays at the Oxford Playhouse until 15th January 2012