Mephitic orphans, enforced jollity, too much drink, social anxiety, sexual ambiguity: just another family Christmas at the Arches, Glasgow. Your hosts for this evening are Tranny and Roseannah. Their theme, wholesome and festive: the Nativity story. The realisation? Not so much.
Rosana Cade’s Tranny is a haunted, shorn-skulled waif in a plump posing pouch; Roseannah (Laurie Brown), her mostly-benevolent, glamorous foil. Together, they guide us through the Greatest Story Ever Told, populating their scene in true panto style with more-and-less horrified members of the audience, and an array of characters, from Brown’s Only Way is Essex Angel Gabriel, to Cade’s crumpled smackhead with a convenient birthing stable going begging. Eilidh MacAskill’s deadpan Granddad flings in and mischievously subverts the show’s only wholesome note, while Jessica Zita Bennett cuts a suitably pitiful figure as Tranny and Roseannah’s tubercular Work Experience mite.
The bare bones of the Biblical tale are embroidered and subverted with wry excursions into consumerism, gender politics and poverty, but this is lightly done. Appropriately, A Gay in A Manger shares a set with the Arches children’s show, The Night Before Christmas, leaving its cityscape liberally spattered with cider and blue WKD, massage oil and vomit before the night is through.
Most of the show’s gruesome edge is provided by Rosana Cade’s breakout sensual episodes as Tranny, an amorous Holy Ghost and a very, very bad Santa. Here Cade’s talents for physical humour come into their own. Unembarrassed, and apparently unembarrassable, she brings a gleeful zeal to her performance. The gales of laughter are uncomfortable, but sincere, in a grimy, cackling, shamed sort of a way.
While the show’s digressive, ramshackle structure generally works in its favour, the pace sometimes drops, particularly in the second half as the performers get over-entangled in facilitating audience participation, whose initial horror has faded. There is a mounting sense that the show’s blasphemies are a bit too gentle. But Brown and Cade are always quick on their feet, capitalising on the fast, loose and forgiving Arches atmosphere to keep their pleasingly grotesque Christmas bauble bouncing along. As Roseannah says, “this is not a fucking panto”, but candied, feel-good filth for the festive season.