Eoghan Funge reviews Mother Goose starring Ian McKellen
It’s every theatre fan’s dream, Ian McKellen, live on stage, directly in front of them and for a reasonable price. When it was announced that Sir Ian McKellen of theatrical and cinematic fame would be touring the UK and Ireland with the show Mother Goose it was met with some confusion. Ian McKellen, the 83 year old actor, esteemed for playing theatrical roles such as King Lear and Hamlet doesn’t quite tick the box of Pantomime Dame. Yet, here he was, on tour with British comic John Bishop as the titular Mother Goose.
Mother Goose follows the story of Mother Goose, the guardian to a bunch of waifs and stray animals, with her husband Mr Goose and her son, Jack. The 3 don't live extraordinarily lavish lives - as indicated by living against the backdrop of a Debenhams. (Yes, a Debenhams.) One day, a goose sent by the good and bad witches of Gooseland is sent to Mother Goose as a test, having laid a golden egg and solving all their financial troubles. Mother Goose starts to enjoy the taste of high living and craves more. She trades away the Goose, with whom she had become quite friendly, in exchange for fame and fortune. What ensues is the journey to get back the beloved goose.
The above synopsis seems to make sense on paper, yet on stage, it felt as though the plot was completely missing, with your classic pantomime call and response, it missed out on any and all opportunities to progress the story and instead opted for occasionally cheap gags. At the top of the opening matinee performance of the show, we were greeted by Gabriel Fleary, announcing that due to an unforeseen emergency, Mr Bishop would not be continuing on with his performances as Mr Goose for the Dublin run. All credit to Mr. Fleary, he took the perceived disappointment on the chin and introduced the show, teaching the willing, and young audience the call and responses and introducing us to the themes of the play. He used the backdrop of anti-capitalism to justify the large Debenhams shop front behind him - a move that in my mind just didn’t make sense - particularly to an Irish audience where the retail chain is something of a controversy due to the 2020 redundancies.
Ian McKellen gave an expectedly fantastic performance and in due credit, all cast members adapted phenomenally well to the change in lead casting. If you had told me going into this production that I would see Ian McKellen strip down to his underpants, sing Abba and dance across the stage in a Beef-Eater-esque gown I’d have laughed you out of the room. However, McKellen took the standard tropes of a pantomime in his stride and made them everything and more, interwoven with the occasional Lord of The Rings Gandalf joke the audience were kept entertained, if not mesmerised by the fact that Sir McKellen was metres ahead of them singing along to popular music, most notably Sweet Caroline at the end.
What was unfortunate was every other aspect of the show felt lacking, it was ineffective in its storytelling, and the ensemble performances, while funny at times, failed to live up to the chops of Sir McKellen. The biggest issue of all was the lack of Plan B - with Bishop gone, none of the jokes were rewritten or had alternatives so at time you could see Fleary coming up with improvised responses to what are clear jabs at Bishops lack of theatrical experience - John Bishop DVDs, tickets and merchandise were poked fun at, including his stage and television credits mentioned - while Fleary tried to counteract that with “well I may not have been in Doctor Who but I was in Holby City,” it didn’t have the same response as I’d have imagined having Bishop on stage would have.
All in all, while comedic in its core nature, brightly coloured, flashy dance and friendly for all ages, Mother Goose at the Bord Gais was a bizarre, mid march Pantomime with clear issues of identity and purpose it could have done with more work and waiting till the next pantomime season to go on tour. When the production's main selling point is its lead actor, you would hope it would have the storyline to support him however, through gruelling joke after joke I left Mother Goose unfortunately underwhelmed and unable to quite process what I had seen. Through all the opening exposition and introductions to political issues such as Boris Johnson, identity, LGBTQIA issues and characters who represent ‘The Energy Company; (a key though unseen enemy in the show) these aspects are fast forgotten, and the show seems to let go of its main goal - to tackle and chew into modern political issues, and instead becomes a loud and confused musical. If you go for Ian McKellen you will not be left disappointed, but if you're going for Pantomime, you’re better off spending your money on a local production.