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Panto review: Paul Kirkley’s verdict on Mother Goose at Cambridge Arts Theatre





Cambridge Arts Theatre has always prided itself on producing a properly local panto (none of your bought-in, chocolate company-sponsored rubbish here). But this year, they’ve upped the ante with a story set not in Arabia, or at the top of a beanstalk, but in “our fair city of Cambridge” itself. And it proves the perfect backdrop – literally, thanks to stunning backcloth recreations of famous city landmarks – for the theatre’s first production of Mother Goose this century.

Matt Crosby as Gertie Goose and ensemble © Richard Hubert Smith
Matt Crosby as Gertie Goose and ensemble © Richard Hubert Smith

The Goose family – widowed matriarch Gertie (Matt Crosby), pure-of-heart Jill (Alicia Belgarde) and daft-as-a-brush Sammy (Steven Roberts) – live a penurious but happy life with their pet goose Priscilla (who Gertie has taken “under her bingo wing”). But when Gertie finds herself the unwitting pawn in a battle between the good Fairy Virtue (Charlotte Wakefield) and the wicked Demon Vanity (Pippa Duffy), it’s poor old Priscilla (Georgia Nicholson) who pays the price, being effectively sold into slavery for her golden eggs.

The fun script mixes groan-inducing cracker jokes with risqué gags that sail harmlessly over the heads of the little ‘uns. The Cambridge setting, meanwhile, allows regular Arts panto scriptwriter Al Lockhart-Morley to lean even more heavily than usual into local humour, from cracks about “The Perse being so posh they call the gym James” to digs at cyclists, the congestion charge and Newnham property prices. Oh, and local landowner Squire Purchase (Nathan Taylor) and his son Jack (thigh-slapping principal boy Gemma Sutton) live at Eiderdowning College – which I think is a goose joke, but I can’t be sure.

Charlotte Wakefield as Fairy Virtue © Richard Hubert Smith
Charlotte Wakefield as Fairy Virtue © Richard Hubert Smith

Topical gags abound, too, with references to everything from Cruella Braverman and Wagatha Christie to Nigel Farage munching on unmentionables in the jungle. Physical comedy highlights, meanwhile, include a frantic performance of The Twelve Days of Christmas – with props – and, of course, the legendary Cambridge ‘slop scene’, in which a pratfalling Crosby and Stevens threaten do themselves a real mischief.

The cast are all seasoned West End performers, and it shows: everyone is on top of their game, and most are given at least one showstopping solo number to demonstrate their impressive pipes. It feels wrong to single out individuals from such a fine ensemble, but Duffy brings a real saucy swagger to the leather-clad Demon Vanity, trading snarling insults with “Princess Virtue-Signalling” and generally earning every boo and hiss, while Roberts immediately gets the younger audience members onside as their silly new best friend.

Alicia Belgarde as Jill Goose and ensemble © Richard Hubert Smith
Alicia Belgarde as Jill Goose and ensemble © Richard Hubert Smith

Few would argue, though, that the show once again belongs to Crosby: in his 18th year of playing dame at the Arts, he’s earned his place among the ranks of bona-fide Cambridge legends, perhaps even eclipsing the great Christopher Biggins. As a performer, he leads the company from the front, and sets the tone for the entire show.

As ever, he also rocks a range of spectacular outfits, this year channelling everyone from Grayson Perry to Kim Kardashian. After succumbing to temptation and forsaking poor Priscilla, meanwhile, Gertie emerges reborn, going full-on Drag Race (“Slay! Queen!”) as she vamps it up to the strains of Venus. She and Sammy also dress as Barbie and Ken at one point (and there’s a brief appearance from King Ryan Gosling, which is definitely a goose joke).

Gemma Sutton as Jack Purchase © Richard Hubert Smith
Gemma Sutton as Jack Purchase © Richard Hubert Smith

Mother Goose isn’t generally considered to be among the front rank of panto stories, and it’s true the plot has neither the stardust of Cinderella nor the adventure of Aladdin. But it’s a sweet morality tale in which (spoiler alert) virtue triumphs over vanity, and Gertie learns that family and friends are the real prize in life. And let’s face it, no-one really comes to the panto for the plot, do they? They come for the music and laughter, the love and romance, and a little bit of festive razzle-dazzle. And on that score, this delivers in spades. Congratulations, Arts Theatre – your golden goose has delivered another hit.

Mother Goose is at Cambridge Arts Theatre until 7 January



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