'Mother Goose' review — Ian McKellen leads a megawatt pantomime for the ages

Matt Wolf
Matt Wolf

Not every theatre actor would continue working into his 80s but here’s Ian McKellen, who turns 84 in May, returning yet again to the stage at a time in life when many of his colleagues might prefer simply to rest. Not for the screen’s Gandalf and Magneto a further foray into the Shakespeare repertoire (Hamlet, Lear, his Bard-heavy solo show) that has kept him busy of late.

This time round, “Serena” – as the show campily and affectionately renames its internationally renowned star – is donning a variety of body-hugging outfits, outré wigs and the like to play Caroline Goose, aka the bosomy Mother Goose that gives Jonathan Harvey’s buoyant West End panto its title. The show, joyously directed by Cal McCrystal, of One Man, Two Guvnors renown, is not to be confused with the concurrent entertainment of the same name at the Hackney Empire and starring Clive Rowe.

The references come thick and fast, from Harry and Meghan to past and present Tory grandees, musical theatre excerpts ranging from A Chorus Line's “One” to “Don’t Rain On My Parade”, McKellen’s megawatt grin all the while powering an altogether giddy evening: the actor looks as if he’s having the time of his life and the expert ensemble around him gleefully, on occasion recklessly follow his lead: Oscar Conlon-Morrey’s sweet Jack – here given his own Jill – shares in some untamed tongue action that has to be seen to be believed.

Presiding over an animal sanctuary that was once a Debenhams department store, this Mother Goose isn’t the fairy tale figure of panto lore but a fame-seeking comic ringleader. Wife to John Bishop’s entirely adorable Vic Goose (“I love this man,” McKellen says in passing of his stage spouse), the eponymous waterfowl indulges innuendo about “greasing the bottom” and “raw materials” and meta-reflections on becoming a “mega-global superstar”.

There’s a nod toward political rebellion in a plot strand involving non-payment to the utilities that are making this winter a challenge for so many. We’re urged to jeer “the energy company” every time that phrase is spoken, and the show’s Boris Johnson out-snouts, to coin a verb, Peppa the Pig.

The script reminds us of McKellen’s own origins, age 8, discovering panto at the Grand Theatre in his native Lancashire town of Bolton. But it also whooshes into the here and now to accommodate COVID-era super-spreader events – and droll aspersions in the direction of the Palladium offering across town just now with Julian Clary. That Jack and the Beanstalk is Goose’s main rival in this year’s celebrity-panto sweepstakes.

I’ve seen McKellen tread similar terrain before, as the Widow Twankey in the Old Vic’s Aladdin nearly 20 years ago. But his game participation on that occasion didn’t prepare me for the breadth of double entendres this time out (a deadpan mention, for instance, of “tossing in my sleep”) or his ability to still the house with Portia’s “quality of mercy” speech from The Merchant of Venice; we soon find that Bishop, a long-established staple of the comedy circuit, can navigate his way just fine through Shakespearean verse, as well.

Liz Ascroft’s sets and costumes suggest a touring production – the show travels the UK and Ireland into April - that has spent proper money on its visuals. A sumptuous vertical bed allows for beneath-the-duvet hijinks whilst headgear finds Camilla Parker Bowles (Genevieve Nicole, fabulous) struggling to navigate an outsized hat through a too-low doorway. Mama Goose’s post-interval sartorial parade extends to a mop-like tray table atop McKellen’s head that is itself a thing of wonder.

The prevailing good nature grants a change of heart to the resident baddie, Malignia (X Factor alumna Karen Mavundukure, in sprightly form). Elsewhere, a clarion-voiced Cilla Quack (yes, you read that right) gets a Les Mis-style imprisonment followed soon by the ability of the protean Anna-Jane Casey, playing Cilla, to give us her best Barbra Streisand. Casey, seen this time last year in the ongoing West End revival of Cabaret, is once again indispensable.

The show may feel freeform, even anarchic, but courses with an abiding respect for theatrical tradition: Peter Pan, we’re informed, premiered at this same theatre in 1904, and Judi Dench and Derek Jacobi are foregrounded every bit as readily as the music of ABBA, Sunset Boulevard, and the World Cup.

By the time the climactic singalong arrives to the familiar tune of “Sweet Caroline,” the audience is nodding as one to the lyric, “good times never seemed so good”. The world may be a dark and often difficult place, but lucky are we to be transported via Gooseland Airways to a rapture-inducing realm of sheer and total bliss.

Mother Goose is at the Duke of York's Theatre through 29 January. Book Mother Goose tickets on London Theatre.

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Photo credit: Ian McKellen and John Bishop (Photo by Manuel Harlan)

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