Mother Goose at Duke of York’s Theatre review: Ian McKellen makes a triumphant return to panto

 (Duke of York’s Theatre)
(Duke of York’s Theatre)

Sir Ian McKellen makes a triumphant return to pantomime damehood in this gleeful, willfully slapdash affair, which opened in Brighton on Saturday and moves to the West End this Thursday.

Wearing a series of increasingly garish frocks and using his own Burnley accent, the original great Knight out treats us to dance routines, a stream of innuendo that’s only just family-friendly, and snippets of Shakespeare, Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard, and Gandalf. “Orcs. ORCS!” he mutters, surveying the upper circle. Comedian John Bishop often looks incredulous at the sheer energy of his 83-year-old co-star and onstage wife.

Writer Jonathan Harvey and director Cal McCrystal have updated the 1902 version of the story that was penned for music hall star Dan Leno and codified the various versions of the fairytale as a story in which goodness is tested and tempted.

Here the poor-but-happy Caroline Goose (McKellen) and husband Vic (Bishop) are running an animal sanctuary in a defunct Debenhams but are being threatened with eviction due to unpaid energy bills. A good and a bad fairy bet on whether wealth will change them, in the form of a golden-egg laying goose called Cilla Quack (musicals stalwart Anna-Jane Casey, serving up gags about the menopause and storming renditions of showtunes and pop songs). Instead, McKellen’s Dame gets her head turned by fame.

 (Duke of York’s Theatre)
(Duke of York’s Theatre)

There’s a lovely transformation routine where Caroline goes through three costume changes as she attends the Oscars, London Fashion Week and the World Cup, for which giant footballs are released into the stalls. McKellen also gets to wear a crinoline-skirted Beefeater outfit and a version of Audrey Hepburn’s ensemble from the Ascot scene in My Fair Lady. The sight of him in a negligee is, I fear, burned on my frontal cortex forever.

Bishop is an easygoing foil, and there is genial support from Oscar Conlon-Morrey as the Gooses’ son Jack, especially in the sploshy slapstick cake-baking scene. The animal costumes and dame’s gowns by designer Liz Ascroft and the puppets built by Christopher Barlow are terrific and there are inventive visual gags and jokes about Liz Truss.

Plus, as previously mentioned, a fair bit of healthy filth. “Rub my ring,” says evil fairy Malignia (Karen Mavundukure). “Can someone pull me off?” says the Goose King (Adam Brown), stranded onstage in a prop cage. “I’m fond of a cockatoo,” winks McKellen’s Caroline as a new bird joins her menagerie.

The animal home is inclusive, even of bats, who’ve had a bad reputation these last two years. There’s a subplot involving a same sex romance. The songs range from Streisand to Heart to a singalong of Sweet Caroline, but the show’s signature tune is Lady Gaga’s Born This Way. If you’re wondering if there’s anything Ian McKellen can’t do on stage and screen the answer is: oh yes there is. His singing voice is comically awful. Great legs, though.

Duke of York’s Theatre, from Dec 15-Jan 29,