Jack and the Beanstalk
From 18 November 2017 to 06 January 2018
Review by Simon Sladen
The topsy-turvy nature of pantomime makes it a gift for creative teams. When the Lyric decided that panto should firmly be on the festive menu back in 2009, it tore up the traditional rule book to create a version of the form fit for the 21st century.
This year's Jack and the Beanstalk builds upon the venue's previous incarnation last seen in 2013, with Jack played by Faith Omole and Daniel Fraser's Jill a Shakespeare-sprouting, wannabe actor. But if Principal Boy and Girl are not cross-dressed, merely inverted, the gender bending tradition is still firmly upheld in Kraig Thornber's Dame Lotte Trottalot and Vikki Stone's Fleshcreep.
Returning for her second year at the Lyric, Stone is Pantoland's most exciting new performer. As the cross-dressed Villain, her Fleshcreep channels Dick Dastardly and delights in the misery of others. Joel Horwood's script places the Villain firmly at the centre of proceedings and permits plenty of scope for ad-libs, audience participation and, amongst other things, woodwind. As the Squire and Jill's father, Fleshcreep has no relation to the Giant as per the usual tale and indeed, when the plot calls for all of the principal cast to journey up the beanstalk, it is Fleshcreep who leads act two's narrative. Rather than Jack wanting to defeat the Giant, it is Fleshcreep who wants to do so with a view to taking over Cloudland and becoming even richer.
Whilst the Lyric has the most electric cast and a production that never falters in its energy, its plotting is still somewhat problematic. Cherelle Skeete's Fairy Cucumber appears in Ye Olde Hammersmith many a time, whilst supposedly being held captive by the Giant in Cloudland and forced to sing him to sleep. The prologue frames her appearance as part of Daisy the Cow's dream, but this device is never explicitly evoked or referenced again, either textually or scenographically, leading to a muddling of reality and fantasy. There are so many smaller strands to the grand narrative, that none appear dominant and the show's overall arc of needing to find magic again to save Ye Olde Hammersmith becomes lost in amongst all the madness.
Anarchy and mayhem come in many forms and the Lyric still holds the crown for the venue with the best chase sequences. 2017's production also sees a vast improvement in the slosh scene as Jack and Dame Trottalott are forced to milk Daisy the Cow to raise Fleshcreep's demand of a million billion mega-Euros. The integration of invented machinery, Trottalot's stupidity and a loss of precious milk results in a full-on fight between milker and milked, giving the scene some structure and purpose as the stage gets sprayed.
Kayla Meikle's beautiful bovine continues the Lyric's tradition of the Comic being an animal, and works particularly well. Using the Comic in such a way permits the skin role voice and commentary and ensures she is not only integral to the plot but an integral and much loved member of the family, referring to best friend to Jack as her "sister from another mister."
The Lyric Young Ensemble brings life to many a musical number, whilst Jean Chan's colourful cartoon-like set and costumes complete with Tim Deiling's lighting conjure a magical place full of energy in which dreams really do come true. But for all the production's energy, its fast-paced nature does leave act one's beanstalk climb feeling somewhat rushed, which is a great shame as ABC Inflatables' beanstalk is most impressive. Similarly, Fleshcreep's transformation from Villain to good-natured citizen is glossed over at breakneck speed.
Next year, the Lyric celebrates the tenth anniversary of panto's return at the venue with Dick Whittington. After a decade of refining its MTV-meets-The-Beano-via-Blackadder panto, long may it continue.