Written & Directed by Lewis C. Baird
Choreography by Taylor Doig
Nestled in the back of Ocean Terminal, right on the old border of the waters of Newhaven and Leith, a fresh budding the tale of Beauty and the Beast emerges in the form of an Auld Reekie Panto as the prince’s castle moves from the hidden forests of France to the country halls of Dalkeith. At its roots, Forth Children’s Theatre retains the magic of the original tale as old as time and infuses it with the trademarks of Panto season to cast an enchantment over audiences in the newly created Wee Hub.
Even though it’s a tale as old as time, you’ll forgive the refresher for those youthful enough to experience the wonder for the first time; the tale of a Prince cursed with an enchantment to appear as hideously bestial as his cruel and arrogant personality. And a young woman, intelligent, hardworking, and sincere enough to see past this enchantment and help break the spell. After their tremendously successful stint with Lionel Bart’s Oliver!, Forth Children’s Theatre embark on another classic tale. Armed with determination and a feisty cast, this new pantomime experience from the grassroots group has a bold ambition to stand toe-to-toe with so many big-budget Pantos. This moxie is easily their greatest strength but isn’t enough to match limitations within the script and pacing.
As our titular pair, Charlotte Dickson and Joe Tulloch have a weight behind them to carry the production – and while it may show in the early moments of an opening night, the pair settle into the grove with a quick pace, and more importantly begin to enjoy themselves. Dickson has the tougher job of warming the audience to the panto elements as well as delivering solo numbers, dance sequences and ensemble pieces with the rest of the cast. She rises to it like a rose pushing through the winter frost: and she’s got the biggest cheerleader behind her.
Allan Stewart, Elaine C. Smith, Johnny McKnight, Peter Alexander, Biggins: they’ve got nothing on the next Panto Dame in Luke Davidson as the fiery-haired and tempered Dame Maggie. Brash, sassy, and likely snaffling down that pink gin you left unattended, Luke Davidson joins the ranks of this year’s finest Pantomime Dames as Maggie, mother to the mischievous and gluttonous Joey, and surrogate and friend to Belle and her father Muddles. If anything, Davidson is capable of working with a richer script and offering a touch more interaction with the audience – but is occasionally side-lined by the story attempts to further inflate the Pantomime tropes.
Davidson leads a cast of talented youth performers in transforming Beauty and the Beast from a Christmas performance into a Pantomime, complete with (limited) audience interactions, sing-alongs, and enough cultural references to fill a hundred shows. And it’s here where frays begin to manifest for the more inexperienced cast members and a script which wants to try so many familiar avenues. It’s admirable, but Baird’s script finds few opportunities to insert fresh dimensions or story elements outside of the Edinburgh aesthetic, relying heavily on the endless bag of panto tricks.
And there are cast members certainly able to handle a meatier script – absolutely devouring the stage and living for every moment of this over-the-top panto extravaganza are YALDI store owners Joseph Coane as Muddles, Belle’s father, and Nathan Fisher’s Joey. The energy the air exudes, particularly Coane is astonishing, and evidence they’ve likely raided the tuck shop before the show.
Keeping it cool tough are Chloe Law and Hannah Wilson: spearheading Doig’s choreography, the pair delivering high kicks plenty and raising the morale of the ensemble cast members to follow suit. Outside of their high-quality narrative storytelling position, Law’s pivotal and at times touching role as Fairy McTavish is utilised best with the production’s use of popular songs, and despite preconceptions, manages to balance these famous tunes rather well within the narrative and emotions of the script.
Perhaps best illustrated in act one closer, where the decision to merge Raise a Glass and Shut Up and Dance is at first a peculiar one – mashing the antagonist’s usual solo scene in the story with the pivotal ballroom, and despite the odds, it works out tremendously. Largely down to Erin Munro’s vocal coaching, which manages to strike a particularly fetching harmony – where lyrics complement one another without collision.
It also highlights Taylor Doig’s choreography which utilises an otherwise small performance space. It enables Dickson and Tulloch to waltz whilst sharing a stage with the ensemble cast encouraging Corin Wake to strut their stuff, shrugging off villainous Big Tam’s arrogance and embracing the Panto spirit for a sterling performance, vocally and physically, to Pink’s Raise Your Glass. In a marvellous turn, Wake’s panto villain Baron Thomas III (Big Tam) can maintain the antagonistic streak, a thorn in the side of our heroes throughout, and brings solid humour to back up their bravado.
Choppy transitions on the limited stage are expected, and the audience understands this, but there’s an evident fear of sluggish pacing between scenes which are escalated by attempts to speed-up changes which impact otherwise stellar scenes – most notably Dickson’s solo performance of Easy on Me, a powerful solo from the young star, reaching awkward notes with relative ease, marred by the sudden scene changes and stagehands fidgeting behind what should be Dickson’s moment.
The last petal falls and the audience’s gratuity and appreciation bring life to the now-dormant Debenhams once again. And just as we conclude a Pantomime staple in the Twelve Days of Christmas (though I for one don’t recall brownies and Jimmy hats), our heroes, dames, rogues, and stars take a final bow – the magic of this locally flavoured production captured, and the cast left with deserving grins on their faces.