FESTIVE season has officially begun, as the curtain went up on the annual Garrison Panto; Islesburgh Drama Group’s Puss In Boots. An expectedly-giddy crowd of excitable children and parents flooded the 115-year old theatre on Wednesday night in eager anticipation of this year’s offering, writes Alex Garrick-Wright.
The story is centuries old, and a venerable panto favourite. The miller’s adopted son, Jack, inherits naught but a cat and a shilling from his late father’s estate, while his two idiot boys inherit the mill and fortune. Only a little disheartened, the effortlessly-likeable Jack (Donna Marie Leask) spend his shilling on a pair of magic boots for the cat, Puss (played, in mime by Lois Phillips), which suddenly renders Puss with the ability to talk (and to be played by Mandy Phillips).
As to be expected, there is a princess, Esmerelda (Juliet Mullay), whose cash-strapped regal parents (Karl Ward as King Wally and Jennie Atkinson as Queen Wendy) want to marry her off to whoever has the most money, hoping to replenish the coffers of their kingdom. Unfortunately for Esmerelda, the richest person in the kingdom is Grimgrab the ogre (the imposing Bob Skinley) who apparently has all the money in the land and dearly wants to marry the princess. It is into this problem that Puss inserts his master, manipulating and scheming to manoeuvre poor Jack into a position to marry Esmerelda (his one-true-love) as the seemingly-fictitious Marquis of Carabas.
Puss in Boots is a panto mainstay, and the cast ably played their parts. Ms. Marie Anderson was the archetypal panto hero and the easy-to-root-for, innocent Jack, while the two idiot brothers, Jasper and the even thicker Jethro (Martin Summers and David Smith respectively), kept the little ones as entertained as possible with their clowning and slapstick. Their own (bizarrely successful) attempts at romancing Babs and Betty (Amy Melkevik and Charity Johnson) were a recurring and charming sub-plot. Their idiocy and ambition allowed them to be easily manipulated by Grimgrab’s evil fairy servant, Pernicia, played by the scenery-chewing Lyn Anderson with malevolent glee.
The royal pair were grand; Watt’s King Wally was a foppish, doddery Charles II-type and Ms Atkinison’s Queen Wendy was channelling a pretty good Queen Victoria. It was unusual to see what was clearly the dame role performed by an actual actress; Queen Wendy had all the regular business of a dame (the clothes- tossing, undressing scene and the brilliant leg-stretching gag). In fact, there was no dame at all, something of a shock for an otherwise-traditional pantomime.
The villain of the piece was equally mysterious. The ostensible villain was Grimgrab who, with his bulbous green features, lacy-shirt and stunning purple brocade frock coat looked like Shrek at an Adam Ant gig. However despite all we are told about how evil Grimgrab is, we don’t actually see much evidence of it; the ogre barely appears in the first half, and even then only to profess his love of the princess and give a genuinely heartfelt rendition of Music of the Night (from Phantom of the Opera) in duet with Pernicia. Rather than establish him as the villain, his first appearance set him up as a sympathetic and lonely figure.
In fact, the only truly ‘bad’ thing we see him do is right at the end, where he plans to give Esmerelda a love potion so she will fall for him (after which he is quite brutally dispatched). Ms Phillips’ Puss, despite manoeuvring the hero into a position of success, almost has more claim on being the villain, given his manipulation of most of the naïve goodies. Even Jasper and Jethro committed more actual wickedness.
No, the true evil of Puss in Bootswas also the absolute highlight. As Jasper and Jethro go to collect rabbits (to impress the King and Queen, you see), entering from the wings came the Killer Rabbits, played by Andy Long and George Webster. In evening dress of tailcoats, bowties and bunny-tails, and wearing black leather rabbit masks, the pair slinked onto stage in a remarkably sinister fashion. Confronting the hapless numbskulls over the poaching of their rabbit brethren, the Killer Rabbits, with their aggressive body language, cockney accents and genuine air of menace were essentially the Krays in cottontails.
When they later emerged once again, hands in throttling position, at the Royal Rabbit Day celebrations, to a wonderful dark-reprise of Run Rabbit, Run Rabbit, Run Run Run, cries of fear and distress rose above the clamour. That they only appeared in two scenes was a major shame, the Killer Rabbits were a fantastic, if surprising, addition.
The music, Run Rabbit included, was excellent. Chris Horrix on piano, John Johnson on double bass (and slide whistle) and Douglas Johnstone on drums and a whimsical array of percussion provided a brilliant running score. Live accompaniment such as theirs is a rare thing, and an integral part of making Puss In Boots a fun experience.
There was also a wide range of songs (in addition to Music of the Night) which suited their scenes, although you could practically hear parents’ teeth grinding when the entire cast and chorus started up with Baby Shark Doo-doo-doo-doo-doo-doo.
The show was full of little high points, like the Killer Rabbits, and the mesmerising Fantasia-esque section where the Peerie Sparks Dance Group (all adorable little bunnies) hopped and pirouetted beneath the LED wings of two twirling, mesmerising moths.
There was plenty of slapstick, pratfalls and chasing-about-the-theatre to keep the kids enthusiastically engaged, and enough double-entendres and sly wee jokes for the adults to keep them chuckling. An able and energetic cast and chorus delivered with gusto.
Set design and costumes were magnificent; from King Wally’s opulent, regal robes, to Jasper and Jethro’s hypnotic trousers and Grimgrab’s dandy attire, the entire cast looked incredible. So too did the backdrops and props, breathing life and colour into the stage.
As the curtain fell, the crowd were suitably worked up and full of smiles. The annual panto is months of work, sweat and effort to bring to fruition; expectations are always high and the tension of the early shows must be unbearable for the cast. Well, they needn’t worry. Puss in Boots went down an absolute treat.
Puss in Boots runs until 8 December. There are still some tickets available at https://tickets.shetlandarts.org/sales/categories/dramadance/puss-in-boots