JACK AND THE BEANSTALK Online
Belgrade Theatre, Coventry 1st-31st December 2020
The annual treat of the Belgrade pantomime is not cancelled, thank goodness, but is available to stream from the theatre’s website into the comfort (or otherwise) of your own home. Panto without audience participation might seem like the odds are stacked against it, but such is the effectiveness of this specially filmed production, you barely miss the auditorium.
The mighty Iain Lauchlan has been the engine, the heart and the soul of the Belgrade’s panto for over a quarter of a century now, and the film begins with him strolling onto a bare stage and gazing out at the empty stalls. Voices and laughter from previous productions can be heard. It’s quite a downbeat start, reflecting the sadness the entire industry must be feeling this year, but the mood instantly picks up when he sits on the edge of the stage alongside his longtime comedy partner, Craig Hollingsworth, who has an idea of how the pantomime can still go ahead this year: stream it online. At once, you can see the chemistry between these two; their partnership is the biggest draw for me to keep going to Coventry every year. Their effortless banter and crosstalk is second-to-none.
And so the panto proper begins, with Lauchlan as the Fairy narrator, able to use her wand for digital effects you can’t get in the theatre. The set and costumes are very much what you’d expect to find on stage but crucially the performance style has been altered to suit the screen. The acting is still non-naturalistic, but its heightened just enough to maximise the comedy without going over the top. Addressing the audience is replaced by direct-to-camera and this works brilliantly for Dame Trott’s monologues (Iain Lauchlan is the consummate dame) and also for quick asides and punchlines. Craig Hollingsworth, usually called upon to be a master of crowd control, here demonstrates another impressive set of skills, those of acting for and to the lens. I did not think these two could get any higher in my estimation, but they’ve done exactly that.
With Lauchlan and Hollingsworth playing most of the parts (due to the necessity of having limited numbers permitted in rehearsals) this is a real showcase for their talents. They are joined by perky principal boy, Morna Macpherson as Jack Trott, with Arina Li as the feisty Princess. Trish Adudu is somewhat underused as the Giant’s wife, appearing in a Zoom call with Hollingsworth’s Fleshcreep (who reminds me of Dave Hill from Slade!) The troupe of young dancers is led by the dashing Ayden Morgan, adding to the vibrancy of this colourful and inventive production.
Lauchlan’s script is bang up-to-date, riddled with topical references, as befits any panto worth its salt. He has always been an innovative panto creator and this year, more than ever, his ability to marry traditional tropes with technical advancements is crucial. Everything is so well thought out. Even Daisy the cow’s costume has been amended to include social distancing for her front and back legs! There is plenty of slapstick and silliness, along with saucier jokes for the adults, and it’s all splendidly directed (by Paul Gibson) to suit the medium.
This is by no means a question of performing a panto and standing a camera in front of it. This is a true marriage of form and content, of timeless tradition and contemporary communications.
It’s available to stream for the whole month of December from belgrade.co.uk so people far beyond the bounds of Coventry can get to see it, and it’s excellent value and an absolute scream. Oh yes it is.