Theatre Review: MOTHER GOOSE – The Lowry, Salford

Ian McKellen and John Bishop in MOTHER GOOSE. Photo Credit: Manuel Harlan

Rude, witty, camp and hilarious, MOTHER GOOSE is everything that a pantomime should be, even if it’s a little rough around the edges.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Now in the final legs of its national tour, classic pantomime, MOTHER GOOSE comes to The Lowry to bless us with Easter fun and frivolity!

Based on the classic fairytales of Mother Goose and the Golden Egg, MOTHER GOOSE tells the story of a poor couple tempted by the opportunity of fortune when they are granted a goose that lays golden eggs. Starring LORD OF THE RINGS star and theatrical sensation Ian McKellen as the titular Mother Goose and celebrated stand-up comedian and DOCTOR WHO star John Bishop as Vic; MOTHER GOOSE is bringing panto back in a way never seen before.

As Mother Goose, McKellen is outstanding. He is camp, crass, and class personified, commanding the stage with every second that he occupies it. The moment that he enters in his obscenely bright outfit and excessive make-up, the atmosphere changes onstage and the audience is captured. Channelling old-school drag queens and the infamous pantomime dames, he is bold and biting, sending the audience into hysterics with a single withering look.

Ian McKellen and John Bishop in MOTHER GOOSE. Photo Credit: Manuel Harlan

To have an exceptional talent such as McKellen in pantomime gives MOTHER GOOSE the added sparkle that makes it worthy of a national tour. And he truly gives his all to this performance, with his comedic timing, professionalism, and gracing the audience with an all-singing, all-dancing Mother Goose. McKellen is a pleasure to watch, and it is a privilege to watch him take to the stage and watch his passion for theatre shine through in his performance.

A true testament to his talent is the way in which he can take Mother Goose from a cartoonish parody to a warm, sincere, and sympathetic character in a matter of seconds. And it is an honour to watch him do this, as everything around him falls away and he performs a tearful, dramatic monologue that makes you forget the costumes and the make-up and marvel at this magnificent talent.

McKellen has fantastic chemistry and banter with his onstage husband, played by Bishop. As Vic, Bishop is sensational. With the kind of quick improvisations, strong dynamic delivery and hilarious comedic timing, we have come to expect from the esteemed comedian Bishop dazzles. He guides the audience through the performance with grace and enjoyment that is palpable and infectious.

And refreshingly, he is not afraid to have fun. Whilst the chaos of pantomime unfolds around him and everything that this entails, Bishop is truly enjoying himself onstage, which allows us to enjoy ourselves. In a time where it is becoming harder for some to stop and find joy, Bishop finds it for us and encourages us to join in.

Ian McKellen in MOTHER GOOSE. Photo Credit: Manuel Harlan

As a duo, McKellen and Bishop are unmatched in their sharp wit and delivery; however, when they are not onstage, their absence is strongly felt as Jonathan Harvey’s writing struggles to carry itself without the two theatre and comedy legends. It is clear to the audience when sets and costumes are being changed over, as the painted curtain comes down and the supporting characters wander into a poorly constructed filler scene.

Whilst Harvey’s writing has all the elements of a classic pantomime, his attempts to blend the old with the new and bring panto into the 21st century are at times jarring; jumping between 80s club classics, songs pulled from 1950s musicals, Lady Gaga, and back again. The songs feel shoe-horned into the scenes, with tenuous links to the storyline. Despite this, Harvey does manage to bring elements of the panto into the 21st century with the uplifting addition of a lesbian love story, which, however brief, feels incredibly welcome and overdue in pantomime.

Harvey has also certainly succeeded in capturing the hilarity of the pantomime, as his writing is bound to provide fantastic fun for all the family. He has found the line between the silly jokes for kids and the obscene, adult humour for the parents; however, there are times when the audience feels as though that line may have been crossed and it is no longer appropriate for the little ones. And whether down to Harvey’s writing, Cal McCrystal’s directing, or the energy of the cast, many of the jokes felt out of place or fell flat. There were a significant number of jokes that were missed due to clunky pacing, awkward wording, or caricature voices that made it difficult to understand what was being said.

It was also disappointing to see McKellen and Bishop lend their voices to a piece that was sprinkled with the occasional transphobic joke and “anti-woke” rhetoric, which felt out of place and uncomfortable, especially for a family pantomime. Certainly, there were times when Harvey got this balance of political commentary just right, particularly with the character of a party-mad pig called Boris hiding in a cupboard, much to the amusement of the audience. However, there were other times when audience members could be heard wincing in their seats at some of the more ill-humoured jokes.

That is not to say that any of this distracts from the extraordinary talent of the cast and creative team. With a supporting cast that has magnificent vocal range; Lizzi Gee’s energetic and explosive choreography; and the joyful costume and puppet design of Liz Ascroft and Christopher Barlow Puppets and Creatures; you can allow the dissonant use of song and uncomfortable jokes to an extent.

The cast of MOTHER GOOSE. Photo Credit: Manuel Harlan

But unfortunately, this was not all that the talent of the cast had to contend with, as the sound mixing was poor and, at times, incredibly choppy. During one of the songs, the sound dropped out completely, and during others, the audience was able to hear the sound being adjusted as the actor’s voices dropped in and out, and the music went from blaring to bearable. It is a credit to the cast’s talent and professionalism that they carried on despite these distractions and were still able to deliver a stellar performance.

Sufficed to say, there was plenty that went wrong in this performance, but it was in classic pantomime spirit that the cast soldiered on and embraced the mistakes, using them to their advantage. They took it all in their stride and utilised each moment by throwing in another hilarious improvisation or allowing themselves to laugh along with the audience at the ridiculousness of it all, which put the audience back at ease.

It was this rapport with the audience and the extent to which the cast involved us in the production that made it truly special, particularly even with the addition of stars such as McKellen and Bishop. Whether we were singing along with the characters or catching things thrown from the stage, it felt truly immersive and will create magical memories for the little ones in the audience.

It is safe to say that with MOTHER GOOSE, Ian McKellen has revived panto and brought it into the 21st century. Rude, witty, camp and hilarious, it is everything that a pantomime should be. And whilst it is true that as a technical piece of theatre, it is lacking and somewhat rough around the edges; it remains an egg-cellent night out for all the family.

MOTHER GOOSE runs at The Lowry, Salford, until 9 April 2023