If you only come for Ian McKellen, you won’t be disappointed. He plays the indomitable Caroline Goose with rollicking aplomb. A vision in frou-frou nightie, Beefeater dress and Maggie Thatcher handbag, he sings, dances, lobs eggs at the audience and drops smirking double entendres. He is occasionally triggered into playing Gandalf and briefly breaks into the “quality of mercy” speech from The Merchant of Venice, which leaves us wishing for more.
But even with McKellen’s luminosity on stage, this pantomime seems ill-put together and strained in its humour. John Bishop, playing Vic Goose opposite McKellen, tells us it will grapple with state-of-the-nation politics. At first it seems to do just that. The Gooses and their sanctuary of animals face destitution in a cost of living crisis, with energy bills they cannot afford to pay until a rescued goose begins to lay golden eggs.
There are mentions of Cruella Braverman, a pig in a school tie called Boris, a llama who identifies as a donkey, and a character representing the “energy company”. But the satire in Jonathan Harvey’s script is flaccid and the political references not only lack bite but seem forgotten halfway through.
The production’s plot seems thrown together as a whole, its writing scrappy and its characters blandly generic. The double entendres come thick and fast but are overfamiliar and unsurprising, from “big sticks of rock” to a pun on “cockatoo”. Under the direction of Cal McCrystal, there is an unruliness to the action that seems to come from a lack of cohesion and polish, even within the uproarious bounds of the panto form.
The song and dance performances are strong though, especially the powerhouse voices of fairies, Encanta (Sharon Ballard) and Malignia (Karen Mavundukure). But the songs themselves are random 1980s and 90s pop hits that do not always chime with the story and have a dated club anthem sound, from Boom Shack-A-Lak to Right Said Fred.
The pairing of Bishop and McKellen feels random too. They are both great performers, but there is no natural chemistry between them and after a while the jokes about Bishop’s lack of acting training begin to ring true.
The show ultimately rides too heavily on McKellen’s stage presence without working hard enough for its part to do his zany turn justice.
• Mother Goose is at Duke of York’s, London, 15 December-29 January; then touring UK and Ireland until 1 April.