Pantos which choose not to rely on the draw of a Z – list sleb or washed – up soap star always tend to be much more inventive and creative with their storytelling and direction. Park Theatre’s production retains just enough familiar material for it to be recognisable as Jack and The Beanstalk but then lurches off on its own pathway, tramping off into completely new ground and cajoling us along for the journey.
The very talented bunch of five actors create a cast of, well, if not thousands, many many more characters and do so with huge energy, wit and warmth. There is a delightful moment where they explore this idea so creatively when they realise they cannot have two particular characters on stage at the same time, for obvious practical reasons. The quick costume changes required are impressive enough but they imbue each new person with a different physicality (particularly Gloria Onitri in every role), expression and accent so we are treated to a very busy, full spectacle. They are also able hoofers and excellent singers, especially Paige Round as Grenthel and Killian Macardle as Daisy the cow. Michael Cahill’s Dame had some lovely warm, sweet moments with the audience in the “Antiques Roadshow- Tuperware pastiche and Omar Ibrahim struck the right balance of enthusiasm and dopiness as Jack (although I would like to see his Hamlet).
Because of the zippy pace, it’s barely noticeable how spartan the set is – and it really doesn’t matter. The production seems to suit the modern building with its exposed brick and visible lighting set-up. Traditional elements such as the presence of a giant or of the usual enormous beanstalk are explained away very convincingly. Again, these things really don’t matter. There is some witty interaction with the technical team who even get involved on stage at one point.
The songs come along very naturally and are all humm-able, the choreography suitably simple and in perfect keeping with the tunes and the costumes just right: a bit bonkers where necessary (the Dame’s dress, of course) and I can’t stop thinking about how beautiful and unusual Grenthels’ dress was.
Some areas where the production deviates from the norm work better than others. Certain traditions clearly need a shake up: there is no principal boy, no love-interest for the dame, very little smut and sauciness (always a controversial issue) and no one character dominates. Instead, some of the peripheral characters come to the fore, for instance we see a lot of the Shepherds Gonzalez, who knit a lot of the plot together and the audience seemed to love them.
The story was appropriately silly but I felt elements could be cut. My overall impression is that there was a feeling that the script was so witty and the actors so talented, it should “all go in”. By the end I didn’t need reminding how amazing they all were: yes – they sing, dance, act, do Shakespeare and can all speak in different accents (although Geordie wandered a bit close to Manc and Scouse at times) and I couldn’t see the point of “re-doing” one of the last scenes in different languages. No one likes a show-off, as they say.
Because so much action and dialogue was crammed in, certain plot elements just floated by before they could be grasped. What was that about Grenthels wedding again?
Most of the time it felt that we were all in on the joke. However, I felt that for the Tupperware element to work, perhaps it needed to be fleshed out a little more. Conversely the “nonsense-speak” didn’t really work for me; I felt there was too much of it, too thinly spread to really take hold. In a similar vein, where they tried to be absurdist, it fell flat.
References to race, however oblique, are not necessary in London. The phrase, “No matter what religion you are” popped up more than once, said in a very knowing way. The directors’ friends all tittered but it meant nothing to me and that will alienate an audience.
It was superbly rehearsed, fantastically silly and will be a very enjoyable, fun Festive Period experience for all ages. I’m also glad I swotted so hard when we did Hamlet for A level. I’m tempted to go back to Park Theatre to see Hamlet in case there’s any panto in it.
Reviewed by Alison Bray
Jack and and the Beanstalk is playing at the Park Theatre until 4 January 2015