REVIEW: Ian McKellan's Mother Goose is as naughty as family-friendly events can get
Gandalf himself is performing in the panto in Dublin this month.
I'll be honest... I've never been to a panto before. Actually, let me restate that, I don't recall ever having been to a panto before. There is a chance I was brought to one when I was a very young child, but if I was, I have no memory of it. I'm aware of the necessary OTT theatricality of it all, the "Oh no I didn't!" / "Oh yes you did" call and response, the "IT'S BEHIND YOU!" scream like you're in an interactive horror movie, that its usually a spruced up take on a classic fairy tale, with one or two off-colour jokes to throw the parents a lifeline every now and then.
I just assumed pantos weren't my thing, but when two-time Oscar-nominee Ian McKellan announces he's taking his version of Mother Goose on tour, well... maybe pantos are suddenly my thing? How often can you say you get to see Gandalf himself in full on drag, singing along to disco classics from ABBA and Gloria Gaynor? I didn't know fully what to expect, but what I didn't anticipate was a version of the Mother Goose tale with more humour for the grown ups in the audience than the kids.
Sure, the younger audience members will be appropriately distracted by the lights and the colours and the music, and the usual panto business of audience interaction is ever present and correct, but paired with jokes about Dublin gay bar The George, or England never winning the Six Nations, or Mary Robinson being considered one of the greatest women in history. Between the musical numbers and the often-raunchy humour, there is barely a dull moment across its runtime.
Love something in this life as much as Ian McKellan loves doing panto in drag. pic.twitter.com/JCMCjDNvrM
— Rory Cashin (@roarEcashin) March 22, 2023
Gandalf brings the funnies
As this version of the story goes, Mother Goose (McKellan) and her husband Vic (intended to be played by comedian John Bishop, but ably replaced by Gabriel Fleary) run a home for abandoned animals in the shell of a closed-down Debenhams megastore on Oxford Street. All living happily in tandem, two fairies place a bet amongst themselves, that fame and riches will corrupt the happy family, and so along comes an actual goose that is capable of laying golden eggs. Will it change the dynamic between Mother, Vic and the animals? Oh yes it will! Oh no it won't! Etc.
To be honest, the plot barely matters, and it isn't really why we're here anyways. We've come for McKellan, and the six-time Lawrence Olivier award-winner is clearly having the time of his life. Dolled up in fancy make-up and fancier gowns, he embodies the energy of an old-school drag queen, stomping the planks in a way only a master of the craft can.
Not above making fun of himself - there is a brilliant running gag about The Lord of the Rings - he also isn't afraid to remind us who he is and what he's capable of. The entire auditorium, young kids and all, fell dead silent as he performed a Shakespeare monologue, the power of his talent held aloft for all to admire.
And then there are those naughty jokes. Just on the right side of too rude so as not to offend anyone, but also aimed precisely high enough to fly right over the heads of anyone too young to get them, audience members were cackling at the "Can he SAY that??" energy, and it was absolutely infectious, to the point were some zingers were clearly ad-libbed on the spot, causing some of the cast to corpse right there on stage.
On top of all of that, there is also the clearly underlying but not overbearing message of acceptance of the alternative. Aside from McKellan performing in drag for kids - which is already a stupid hot topic issue in some less enlightened circles - there is also the idea that Mother and Vic have created their own "found family", which is very much a queer ideology where friends become siblings and older generations become mothers for those abandoned by their own, just for being different.
If every panto is like this, then I'll be front row centre for them all from now on. Mother Goose is running at the Bord Gais Energy Theatre until Sunday, 26 March.
- Ireland's potential nominees for the 2024 Oscars
- Neil Gaiman admits the latest adaptation of his story made him cry
- 24 Hours in... Banbridge