Tag Archives: Jonathan Harvey

One Goose To Rule Them All


Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Wednesday 22nd February 2023

National treasure, acting phenomenon and well-established octogenarian, Sir Ian McKellen treats us to his pantomime dame skills in this touring production.  Never mind that Christmas is almost a year away, this is the panto to see.

The script is by Jonathan Harvey (Gimme Gimme Gimme, Beautiful Thing) and is full to bursting with gags.  The plot, unlike most pantos, is not overly familiar: Mother Goose harbours animals in a sanctuary (here, a squat in a disused Debenhams).  This haven of animal welfare is under threat because of a money-grasping energy company (if you can imagine such a thing) but then, thanks to a wager between a good and a bad fairy, a goose that lays golden eggs arrives and Mother’s money worries are over.  The bad fairy tempts Mother to give up the goose in exchange for her heart’s desire: fame and fortune. But can money and celebrity bring happiness?

Well, yes.  From the audience’s point of view, that is.  The show is a non-stop joy fest, with rapid fire jokes, some of them old, some of them new, most of them bawdy, and, crucially, the elements one expects from the art form.  Panto is more than a variety show or the opportunity for soap opera starlets to show whether or not they can sing or take a joke.  Harvey is clearly a writer who knows and loves the art form and while some of the topical and satirical references are beginning to turn, like old milk, the show very much speaks about the state of the nation and its leaders, which is something panto has always done. There’s also a nice touch of LGBTQ+ representation, which is a welcome innovation.  We get a genuinely hilarious slapstick scene in a kitchen.  There’s the It’s Behind You sequence, a love plot… All of it is familiar but none of it is old hat.  Because this plot isn’t churned out as often as others, and because the approach to the production breathes new life into the format.  Take the chorus, for example, playing Mother Goose’s rescued animals.  They are integrated into the action as individual characters, altogether as a unit, and severally as scene-shifters.  They’re not just wheeled on to prance about in the background, they are truly supporting artistes.

Then there are the songs.  A mix of pop, disco, and show tunes, performed by superb vocalists.  Panto producers take note: if you fork out for the rights to well-known hits, it pays dividends.  Good fairy Encanta (Sharon Ballard) and bad fairy Malignia (Karen Mavunukure) delight with their verbal sparring and an electrifying duet of No More Tears/Enough is Enough.  Anna-Jane Casey brings the house down as Cilla the Goose, serving full-on Funny Girl fantasy with Don’t Rain On My Parade.  Adam Brown’s King of Gooseland is wonderfully camp and silly, while Oscar Conlon-Morrey is tons of fun as everybody’s friend, Jack.

McKellen is divine, of course, delivering droll Northern deadpan with generous helpings of camp.  He also brings depth to the role, in the way he leans into certain phrases, so we believe the character’s remorse is genuine.  John Bishop is the perfect foil as McKellen’s husband, Vic.  Bishop is a natural performer, instantly appealing and effortlessly funny.  You can’t help liking him.  Of course, there are plenty of Lord of the Rings references, and Shakespeare crops up once or twice, leading to the show’s most touching moment. There are also odd glimpses of darkness: the way animals are treated, which is something society needs to address. Panto can still deliver a moral message, you see.

It goes to show you don’t need a cast list of wannabes and has-beens, all with not enough to do, to draw in the crowds. You just need one global mega superstar, a well-known comedian, and an ensemble of hugely talented performers working with a top-notch script to keep a much-loved art form alive and effective. Can we have Babes in the Wood next year?

The funniest pantomime I can remember in all my years of panto worship, this is the one to rule them all and in the darkness bind us.

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

A Thing of Beauty


Arts Theatre, London, Saturday 18th May, 2013


Jonathan Harvey’s big-hearted comedy is twenty years old.  I can’t believe it – especially having seen this anniversary production; it is still fresh as a daisy and works like a charm.

Set in 1993, what was a contemporary piece is slipping towards period – the pop culture references evoke laughs of nostalgia (Bob’s Full House anyone?) although allusions to musicals and show tunes will never grow old.

Suranne Jones leads a strong cast as 30-something single mother Sandra.  She has a quick temper and a sharp tongue but her tough exterior shields the heart of a mother striving to make her way and provide for her teenage son.  Jones is perfect – sarcastic one minute, on the attack the next, and then vulnerable and hurt.  Jake Davies’s Jamie is that son, struggling to navigate his way through difficult teen years; he’s a bit of a loner, a victim of bullying.  When sporty boy-next-door Ste (Danny-Boy Hatchard) seeks refuge from physical abuse in Jamie’s room, the two lads strike up a tentative relationship.  It’s a touching story of first love and also a lovely story of first touching.

Handsome Oliver Farnworth is hilarious as Sandra’s current boyfriend Tony, an ‘artist’ who conducts himself like a trendy social worker or a teacher trying too hard to be down with the kids.  Zaraah Abrahams is feisty and layered as Leah, a Mama Cass aficionado, excluded from school, rebelling against the system.  She brings out the worst in Sandra – and everyone else, it seems – but her loneliness and lack of hope are almost palpable beneath the barbs and putdowns.

Director Nikolai Foster tackles the changing moods of Harvey’s volatile script: tenderness and violence struggle for supremacy, humour and emotional gut punches come and go in the flash of an eye.  Intense emotions are never far from the surface.  Life is tough in this downtrodden area but the characters are wholly human and not the demonised shirkers and scroungers our present-day vicious government would have you believe.

The growing relationship between the two young lads is sweet and funny, but the play is also about Sandra breaking free of expectations and making something of herself in the pub trade.  She is not just a blonde barmaid anymore.  When she breaks up with Tony, she is rejecting the expectation that she must have a man in her life, and when  that man is an ineffectual ‘new man’ – well, who needs them?

The show is a delight from start to finish, a witty script well-played by all.  If EastEnders was a tenth as good as this, I’d tune in. The love of two teenage boys in a block of Thamesmead flats is indeed a beautiful thing, like Sandra’s hard-won hanging basket outside her grubby front door.

And it’s always good to hear Wincey Willis get a name check.


Oliver Farnworth and Suranne Jones

Oliver Farnworth and Suranne Jones