Review: Mother Goose at Liverpool Empire ****
Christmas may be fast receding in the rear-view mirror of memory.
But although we’re no longer in traditional panto season, Liverpool playwright Jonathan Harvey’s energetic and enjoyable Mother Goose is the kind of colourful, occasionally anarchic pick up we all need to carry us through to Easter.
In fact, what could be more apt for that than a panto which has a proliferation of giant golden eggs at its heart.
The other thing this touring production has at its heart is star wattage, chiefly in the form of Sir Ian McKellen – a knight masquerading as a Dame. Very 2023.
McKellen has panto form of course, playing back-to-back Widow Twankeys over two seasons at the Old Vic.
Still, I can’t imagine that grand old lady of London theatreland could have prepared him for an up-for-it Liverpool Empire audience, packing the Lime Street theatre’s auditorium practically to bursting on opening night.
In this retelling of one of the oldest pantos of them all, he plays the titular Mother (Caroline) Goose, doyenne of an on-its-uppers animal sanctuary housed in a defunct Debenhams on a high street which looks rather like the centre of Liverpool.
The sanctuary is threatened with being cut off by the dastardly energy company (the second ‘baddie’ of the show after Karen Mavundukure’s bad fairy Malignia).
But after menopausal golden egg-laying goose Cilla Quack (Anna-Jane Casey) drops into their lives following an altercation with a police helicopter, it looks as though the sanctuary’s fortune might be about to change.
Will Mother Goose’s head be turned by newfound wealth – and the lure of fame? Or will she realise what is truly important in life?
Above: Oscar Conlon-Morrey as Jack, Sir Ian McKellen as Caroline Goose and John Bishop as Vic Goose. Top: McKellen and Bishop. Photos by Manuel Harlan
The other star wattage comes from John Bishop as Vic Goose, the Wilbur to McKellen’s Edna Turnblad if you will. Bishop may fill arenas these days, but on his transition from pharmaceutical company rep to superstar comedian he also trod the boards in panto - as Herman the Henchman at the Royal Court on one occasion.
“This is the most joyful thing I’ve ever done,” he announces in a stand-up routine which acts as part-prologue, part-warm up for the show proper. And you believe him.
The veteran thespian and Scouse stand-up prove a happy double act, McKellen (part Cissy AND Ada, part Danny la Rue, a sprinkling of marabou-trimmed Dame Edna) evidently having a ball as he mixes a deadpan delivery of the sometimes groansome double entendres that pepper Harvey’s script with knowing nods to staff-wielding days as Gandalf to Shakespearean declamations – including an entire speech from the Merchant of Venice, and Bishop a genial foil as the partnership's straight man.
Meanwhile the pratfalls and broad physical comedy are left to a fine-voiced Oscar Conlon-Morrey who works hard as their gormless son Jack.
A ‘baking’ scene involving an instruction to ‘grease the bottom’ leaves Bishop corpsing helplessly behind a recipe book and Conlon-Morrey turning an alarming shade of red with the effort of not laughing while McKellen remains as icily inscrutable as Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess.
Cilla Black trod the boards in panto at the Empire in her time, most recently as Cinder’s Fairy Godmother in Capital of Culture year.
Above: Adam Brown as the King of Gooseland and Anna-Jane Casey as Cilla Quack. Photo by Manuel Harlan.
But if you could choose anyone to immortalise you as a golden egg-laying goose, you’d want it to be the brilliant Casey, a glowing ball of energy who also gives a masterclass in musicals with a storming performance of Funny Girl’s Don’t Rain on My Parade.
In fact, musicals numbers make up a good proportion of the show’s tunes which elsewhere tend towards power ballads and classic pop rather than regular panto’s pillaging of whatever has been in the charts in that particular year.
From We’re In the Money to Boom Shack-a-Lack, they’re given a glitzy sheen by a cracking ensemble cast backed by a small but powerful band in the pit.
Harvey's script covers the main panto tropes and audience participation is actively encouraged from the off.
Of course, like most other pantos, there are things that don’t work as well as they might.
The show starts with all guns blazing but feels like it loses some energy and focus as it heads for the interval. A Ghosties and Ghoulies scene in the enchanted forest needs either a good injection of both or to be cut altogether – which would help the first half’s rangy running time.
And while Liverpool’s adult audience unsurprisingly loves the production’s political satire, the jibes against politicians and utilities giants seem to peter out half way through the evening.
Happily the cast themselves, led by the indefatigable 83-year-old McKellen, still have plenty in the tank to carry them all the way to the show’s crowd-pleasing finale.