Sir Ian McKellen and John Bishop – a dazzling double act as Mother Goose comes to The Lowry

Gandalf, X-Men’s Magneto, Sherlock Holmes, acting stalwart Sir Ian McKellen has had a rich and varied career spanning six decades. But now, the 83-year-old has stepped into the heels and hair wigs of a brand new role in the hilarious pantomime: Mother Goose.

A pantomime? In April? Oh yes it is. And it’s taking to the stage of The Lowry, in Salford, until Easter Sunday, April 9. 

Traditionally, panto season runs from November through to January, but what could be more seasonal for the Easter break than a menopausal goose laying golden eggs? 

Written by Coronation Street’s Jonathan Harvey and directed by Cal McCrystal, the story of Mother Goose sees Caroline (Sir Ian McKellen) and her husband Vic – played by comic John Bishop – struggling to make ends meet as they run an animal sanctuary for waifs and strays. 

Their home – an abandoned Debenhams on Oxford Street – is thrown into insecurity after being threatened by the dreaded Energy Company (The Energy Company!) with eviction, bringing an element of social commentary that hits rather close to home in 2023.

But as luck would have it, a goose – named Cilla Quack – finds herself at the struggling sanctuary, and begins to lay golden eggs, seemingly reversing their financial troubles and living a life of luxury in the Tower of London (anyone know where I can find one of these geese?)

Of course, it would be a very short story should that be the end of it, so there are some good and bad fairies thrown in to twist the plot, which sees Mother Goose tempted by fame and celebrity, turning her back on her family to become a star.

Sir Ian McKellen arrives on stage in a padded behind, 70s style dress and hair rollers, complete with blue glittering eye shadow and a pink lip shade, entirely unrecognisable from his former bearded role in the Lord of the Rings.

Starring alongside him, John Bishop plays the devoted husband and together, the double act provide all the humour and hijinks expected from a panto performance, complete with all the ‘oh no he isn’ts’ and the ‘it’s behind you’s’.

The script has been superbly written for Ian and John, with McKellen seemingly having flashbacks to his Middle Earth wizard character as he spots orcs in the audience, and it wouldn’t have been complete without hearing that iconic line “you shall not pass!”

McKellen also affords the chance to indulge in a two-minute monologue of Merchant of Venice, going back to his Shakespearean roots, which offered a poignant theatre experience like no other.

And it seems that Bishop, too, has been taking lessons from the award-winning thespian, stunning the audience with a scouse-accent version of Sonnet 18 – “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day…”

There was a particularly touching moment where McKellen recounts his first panto experience seeing Annie when he was eight years old, showing off his vocal ability with a verse from Tomorrow – and I couldn’t help but shed a tear for Paul O’Grady, who had been performing as Miss Hanigan in the latest production before his recent passing.

There’s plenty of humour to be had though, as is ever the way in Pantoland. There’s some Harry Enfield-esque jokes that take aim at the Government and Royal Family, with Bishop desperately shoving a pig puppet called Boris back into a kitchen cupboard, crying out: “No Boris, we are NOT throwing a party!”

This slapstick scene was a real hit with the younger audience as Mr and Mrs Goose attempted to bake a cake with their son, Jack, brilliantly played by Oscar Conlon-Morrey, giving me memories of a Schitt’s Creek scene that sees David and Moira argue over what ‘fold in the cheese’ meant, before rubbing grease into McKellen’s derriere.

The cheeky trio had a fantastic family dynamic, the naive but lovable Jack, with McKellen as the strong and independent matriarch, and Bishop – who has no formal acting experience – remaining a humble, northern funnyman. John really became the glue that held the show together when anything didn’t quite go to plan, coming on stage as himself following a technical glitch to highlight the cast and crew behind the scenes that make the production as magical as it is.

The costumes were as extravagant as to be expected, with Sir Ian McKellen getting dolled up in a wigs and dresses, including some impressive on-stage quick changes from silk gala gowns to a Geri Halliwell style Union Jack mini, to a flowing yellow prom piece – complete with wig switches, too – it was all very Burlesque. McKellen took it all in his stride, too, giving the audience a little tease in a baby-doll nightie, and showing off some rather impressive tap-dancing skills for a man of his vintage. He may be in his eighties, but McKellen is certainly showing no signs of slowing down any time soon.

The ensemble really brought the show to life, acting as a menagerie of misfits while doubling up as some of the other characters, too, such as Adam Brown’s transformation from Goat to the quick-witted and sarcastic King Goose.

Genevieve Nicole’s Puss in Boots was fantastic, as was Anna-Jane Casey as Cilla Quack, who performed some brilliant renditions on All By Myself and Rain on my Parade while held captive in Gooseland as prisoner 24601 – another Easter egg nodding to McKellen’s acting history, this time in Les Mis.

Mother Goose offers a chance to see Sir Ian McKellen like you’ve never seen him before, he effortlessly and elegantly takes on the role of CarolineG and brings lighthearted entertainment, laughter and something incredibly light to add to his long list of credits. Beside him, Bishop is a real gentleman, allowing his work wife the lion’s share of the limelight, injecting personality, impeccable comic timing and a real human element to the otherworldly production.

Feelgood frocks and frollicks, Mother Goose proves that Panto isn’t just for Christmas, and is certain to shake off those winter blues with anti-establishment humour, rags to riches morality, and honks of laughter – not to mention a chance to see Sir Ian McKellen as theatre’s most unlikely but highly adored dame. Give that man another knighthood for his services to drama, he wholeheartedly deserves it.

Mother Goose is at The Lowry, Salford, until Sunday, April 9, with tickets still available from £10 here.

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