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JACK AND THE BEANSTALK

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 12th December, 2017

 

Apart from a couple of changes, the main cast from last year’s rollicking Aladdin returns to Wolverhampton for this generous bean feast of fun, and they seem to work more as a team this time.  Lisa Riley is in the good fairy role, as Mother Nature, glamorous yet down-to-earth – in fact, despite the lofty heights of the beanstalk, this is a very down-to-earth show!  Ian Adams is Dame Trot in an array of gorgeously over-the-top outfits.  Adams is an excellent dame, whose mannerisms never descend into caricature or lampoon.  He is supported by Adam C Booth as Simple Simon, an energised funny man who can work the audience seemingly effortlessly.  Local star Doreen Tipton is also back to augment the comic capers, bringing local jokes for local people – the Black Country dialect is instantly funny, and Doreen’s deadpan presence is a hoot.

Graham Cole is enjoying himself as the giant’s henchman, Fleshcreep – he even has a go at singing to open the second act.  Bless.

But leading man and star of the show is Gareth Gates, looking rugged and sounding smooth.  His pop star vocals are as sweet as ever, and he treats us to a rendition of Unchained Melody that gives me shivers.  He looks great in panto costume and handles the action well, leaving the broad comedy to the others.  His voice blends well with Sarah Vaughan’s Jill, and a traditional routine on a wall with interference from Simple Simon offers one of this funny shows funniest moments.  There is a chaotic version of The 12 Days of Christmas, complete with water pistols, and a delightful moment with youngsters brought up from the audience.

Everything you expect to see is here, well presented and pleasingly performed, from the troupe of dancers and the chorus of kids, to the corny jokes and some hilarious bawdy humour.  When the giant finally puts in an appearance, it is an impressive piece of large-scale puppetry, and there is the added bonus of a cameo from Julie Paton, singing gorgeously as his golden harp.  Paton also choreographs and so is responsible for a lot of the show’s pizzazz.

Production values are high and the fun levels higher.  This is a solid and reliable pantomime that delivers on all fronts.  Hugely enjoyable and full of good cheer, this production demonstrates why I think pantomime is the best thing about the festive season.

Lisa Riley as Mother Nature and Gareth Gates as Jack in Jack And The Beanstalk - Wolverhampton Grand Theatre

Lisa Riley as Mother Nature and Gareth Gates as Jack (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)

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On the Up

JACK AND THE BEANSTALK

Hippodrome, Birmingham, Monday 22nd December, 2014

 

You can rely on the Hippodrome pantomime for spectacle – that’s a given – but what this year’s festive production has that some of the more recent offerings have lacked is a strong storyline, the tree on which to hang the glittering baubles.   This year we are firmly back in trad panto territory as opposed to the variety-show-in-fairytale-clothing of last year’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs or, before that, Robinson Crusoe and the Caribbean Pirates.

It’s not just the plot that is familiar and I have to remember that for many members of the audience it is the first time they are encountering these well-worn, tried and tested routines. Much is repeated from last year – with a couple of prominent cast members playing a return engagement, this is to be expected, but know what? Even the oldest, corniest moments still have the power to charm when executed by skilled hands such as these.  The humour is puerile and lavatorial: bum, poo, fart, willy… I laughed a lot.

The irrepressible Matt Slack (imagine a bald Brian Conley) is back as the titular Jack’s silly-billy brother. Slack is a natural for pantomime and a sublime physical comedian. Jack also has another, perhaps unnecessary brother, Simple Simon – ventriloquist Paul Zerdin, also back for a second year. Not so much a double act as an alternating pair of entertainers, these two provide much of the comic thrust of the evening. Zerdin performs the “Who’s in the first house?” routine superbly – by himself!

Also back is Gary Wilmot, a consummate panto dame. Wilmot doesn’t exaggerate or caricature, making his Dame Trot a likeable, cheeky character rather than a grotesque.

Duncan James proves a good sport as our dashing hero Jack, finally succumbing to our exhortations to take his shirt off. He and Princess Apricot (a sweet Robyn Mellor) belt out a bit of an aimless ballad together – their voices deserve better. Not that it matters: their number is sabotaged by Matt Slack doing something remarkable with a large red balloon.

In fact, probably the only criticism I’d level is where some of the song choices are concerned. Evil Fleshcreep opens the second act with an instantly forgettable song – Chris Gascoyne (Peter Barlow off of Corrie) is clearly enjoying himself as the Giant’s henchman but there must be better songs out there.

Enchantress Jane McDonald gives a rousing rendition of Ain’t No Mountain High Enough as Jack scales the beanstalk – it suits her vocal stylings better than the pompous stuff she is given earlier on. With her Northern camp, she fits in with the comedians – it’s still early in the show’s long run (“We’re here until Easter,” jokes Slack) so the comic timing is a little loose in parts. I expect this will tighten up with every performance.

There is plenty to enjoy. A prolonged 3D sequence is scary, in a funfair kind of way, and the Giant appears in an animated version and ‘live’ on stage. A pantomime cow does a moonwalk.  The obligatory 12 Days of Christmas routine is cleverly undermined in a kind of Play That Goes Wrong way and, almost literally, brings the house down.   Again I have to bear in mind that normal people don’t go to see several pantomimes in the same season, as we clap along to yet another rendition of Pharrell Williams’s Happy

It’s great to see the Hippodrome panto back on track, letting the form and not the stars shape the content.

jackand the beanstalk


Fee Fi Fo FUN!

JACK AND THE BEANSTALK

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 11th December, 2012

 As usual, the Wolverhampton pantomime is a lot of fun, adhering to the winning formula of corny jokes and barely relevant pop songs to enrich the retelling of a traditional story.  The script by Jonathan Kiley and Michael Vivian hits all the plot points you expect with extra helpings of silliness along the way.

It is a curious thing in Pantoland that all the villages are populated by troupes of young dancers and small children.  They perform an energetic opening number, led by Princess Apricot (Sophie Brooke-Ford) who has been seeing a commoner on the downlow: the eponymous Jack, played by Ben James-Ellis, who is the ideal pantomime hero.  He’s handsome, sings, dances, and displays a neat line in cod heroic posturing and over-the-top reactions.

The traditional giant’s henchman, Fleshcreep, has been given a sex change and a new identity in order to accommodate Sherrie Hewson as “Lady Temple-Savage”.  She appears in a range of glamorous outfits, all sequins and feathers, and is not shy of sending herself up.  It didn’t matter that she lost her grip on some of the material – in fact it added to the fun.  I enjoyed booing her very much.

Ken Morley is King Crumble, in a bumbling, funny characterisation – I was pleased that his and Hewson’s Coronation Street connection was only alluded to and not done to death.   Niki Evans impresses as Fairy Fortune – her voice works very well with James-Ellis’s in a couple of rousing numbers.  Most of the fun and audience interaction comes from Keith Harris and little green duck Orville.  It struck me that the kids in the audience might not know who he is.  They certainly did by the end of the evening.  Harris remains a skilled and talented ventriloquist but it is when he replaces the duck for the anarchic monkey Cuddles that his act really takes off.  The jokes become more puerile and ever nearer the knuckle, delighting children and adults on different (low) levels.

For me the shining star of the night is veteran of 38 pantomimes, Nigel Ellacott, who storms the stage as Jack’s ‘mother’, Dame Trot.  His performance is a master class in pantomime technique, a controlled display yet he is able to improvise and adlib as the need arises.  It is performers of this calibre that keep this theatrical form alive, rather than TV stars and ‘reality celebs’ just mucking around.

Andrew Lynford’s direction takes in traditional business and contemporary references, keeping the energy levels high for most of the show.  The performance I saw was still early in the run – the routines and gags will settle in, and the cast will bond into a more tightly knit ensemble with every show they do.

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Picture credit: Gavin Dickson Photography