Perth Theatre

Until January 6

Jack And The Beanstalk

SEC Armadillo, Glasgow

Until January 7

Reviewed by Mark Brown

PERTH Theatre, the Fair City's grand, old playhouse, has reopened after a four-year, £16.6 million refurbishment. How better for the smartly modernised venue to announce both its change and its continuity than with a traditional pantomime with a decidedly 21st-century twist?

Director Lu Kemp's staging of Aladdin is, paradoxically, conventional-yet-unorthodox. Which is appropriate, given that the theatre's spruced-up auditorium retains its Victorian design, while the very cool, new building around it (complete with new studio theatre) has been transformed utterly, with state-of-the art facilities for the public and performers alike.

On the famous boards themselves, we have a panto relocated from the ancient Middle East to the Caledonian region of Perthsia. There, Aladdin and his brother Wishy Washy (baseball hat-wearing local boys) are engaged in a desperate battle with the evil "Abanazer" (a cross-dressed baddie based, somewhat improbably, upon Keith Flint from The Prodigy).

Yes, you read that right. The malevolent, misspelled sorcerer has been transformed into the singer of Firestarter, back in his 1996 incarnation, green-winged hair and all.

Played, with great energy, as a radge, Scottish working-class male by Christina Strachan, it is a genuinely weird, yet strangely effective, characterisation. The same cannot be said, however, for the genie (a female Elvis in a boiler suit), who even the experienced actor Wendy Seager fails to make sense of.

Such off-piste character creations do leave one wondering if director Kemp and designer Ana Ines Jabares-Pita have been imbibing hallucinogenic substances. However, some kind of sanity is restored in the other leading roles.

It's great to see American actor Tyler Collins (a graduate of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, and a dedicated member of the Scottish performing arts community ever since) still performing on this side of the Atlantic. If the British government's over-zealous immigration authorities hadn't been forced to reconsider, the Alaskan actor would have become another deportation statistic.

Collins's Wishy Washy is appropriately glaikit and loveable, while Gavin Jon Wright's Aladdin is similarly sympathetic (not least to the roof-raising primary school children who dominated last Wednesday's matinee). That said, one does suspect that the beautiful Princess Jasmine (Nicole Sawyerr on fine-voiced, feisty and, ultimately, republican form) only falls in love with the neddish Aladdin because she has had a sheltered life.

Seasoned actor Benny Young does a great daft, posh bloke and his bonkers Emperor One Percent fits the hundred-dollar bill. The real star of the show, however, as ever at Perth, is Scotland's leading panto dame Barrie Hunter.

Not content with adding some material to the script (written by pantomime specialist Joel Horwood, and redrafted for Perth by Scotland-based dramatist Frances Poet), Hunter is back in full bricklayer-in-drag mode as Widow Twankey. Sure-footed, hilarious, fabulously costumed and ad-libbing like the music hall heroes of old, Hunter's gloriously unlikely cross-dressing is the saviour of a show that might otherwise have succumbed to its own eccentricities.

Which is not to say that Jack And The Beanstalk, at Scotland's biggest panto venue the SEC Armadillo, is an unalloyed success. Led by Greg McHugh (aka Gary: Tank Commander) and comic and musical double act The Dolls (aka Gayle Telfer Stevens and Louise McCarthy), the show shifts uncomfortably between the downright rollicking and the frustratingly insipid.

The garish, two-dimensional sets, frightening, mechanical monster and cleverly-worked 3D graphics are all to be expected in a big stage show from "the world's biggest pantomime producer" Qdos. However, so too are the predictably conventional characterisations of the thigh-slappingly intrepid Jack (Llandyll Gove), the winsome Princess Apricot (Rachel Flynn) and the sweeter-than-candyfloss "Spirit of the Bean" (ie Fairy Godmother, played by Sabrina Carter). The numerous issues with the microphones during Tuesday's press performance were an unexpected distraction.

If the show seems, at times, to be struggling against its own conservatism, it also has the difficulties of its venue to contend with. The Armadillo (the Glaswegian nickname for which was recently made official by the rebranded Scottish Event Campus) may be accommodating to pop music, but it can be unforgiving as a theatre venue. It's difficult to fill, both with punters and atmosphere, but McHugh, Telfer Stevens and McCarthy give it a very good go.

McHugh's material (complete with references to each of his Gary Tank interviews with Scotland's political leaders) is a little tired in places, but his performance is as winning as ever. A late moment of audience participation, in which four children were brought on stage for a chat and a singsong, threatened to go pear-shaped on account of the unintended surrealism of two very unusual wee boys. A lesser performer than McHugh would have been knocked off his stride by their oddball answers, but the comic actor handled it masterfully, making the skit a highlight of the evening.

For their parts, The Dolls lift the energy levels every time they come on stage. Parents and guardians who prefer to keep their children away from double entendres and other sexually suggestive material might find Telfer Stevens and McCarthy a little close to the knuckle, but there's no arguing with their star quality. A rendition of the big musical number from their hit show The Dolls Abroad is a comic joy.

Finally, a word for Glaswegian actor John McLarnon, who plays the giant's Scotophobic, English sidekick Fleshcreep. Mainly plying his trade in London these days, his brilliantly sung homecoming is the stand-out supporting performance of an uneven but ultimately successful show.