REVIEW: Jack and the Beanstalk (Sunderland Empire) ★★★

Fee Fi Fo Fum, I can smell something, is it fun?

It’s panto time and as befits the age old tradition, Sunderland Empire have once again produced a classic show. This year’s festive frolic is Jack & The Beanstalk, and whilst the story stays true to the tried & trusted tale, the writing & the jokes are the opportunity to bring things up to date. References to Brexit were always going to be a panto must have this year and the writers have also set their sights on the usual regional rivalry with Newcastle.

The story of Jack & The Beanstalk lends itself pretty well to panto, there’s a catchy hook, the magic beans, the panto dame, but to give it a more rounded feel there’s a need to introduce a damsel in distress and of course an evil villain.

Any panto that can boast Philip Meeks as its Dame is always going to be aiming for top show in the region and once again he brings his outrageously over the top persona and even bigger costumes right into the heart of Panto Land – bit of a guilty secret but I’ve loved Philip’s dames for years and this one was again bang on for campy madcap and not-so-subtle flirting. That said, you can’t hope for one person to carry the whole show; maybe it was because he is so good but sadly the other characters paled somewhat, lines seemed rushed and even the staple panto fare felt disjointed and patchy. What once would have been a hilarious custard pie fight was limited to a couple of face fulls. Bill Ward as the villain seemed more preoccupied with posing than actually being evil and the sound was not well balanced with lead vocals being drowned out by the accompanying band and the cast having to shout to be heard over the background music – shame really as some of the clever word play (especially of Janine Duvitski as the vegetable fairy) and great singing was rather lost.

Making use of 3D projected visuals has been around for a few years now, and whilst some might suggest it is ‘old hat’ it still gives the audience a chance to play the whole ‘its behind you’ game. If you’ve seen a few pantos this season then you’ll probably have started to recognise some familiar set ups –the Ghostbusters routine is making at least 4 appearances. As such it will more likely be those that buck the trend that will be more fondly remembered come January.

Of course, the target audience for panto is still the kids and this show gives them plenty of opportunity to shout and scream and join in, use up some energy and hopefully for the parents sanity, sleep in the car on the way home.

There are many pantos on offer across the region, if you’re looking for a traditional show which sticks to the formula and is aimed at children then this is probably a good one to choose, if however you’re after something a bit different, more modern and, dare I say, witty, then perhaps you should drop the kids off and go wait in the car.

Reviewed by Andy Bramfitt