Jack and the Beanstalk

Berwick Kaler

York Theatre Royal

York Theatre Royal

From 14 December 2017 to 03 February 2018

Review by Mark Smith

There was a moment in this year’s York Theatre Royal panto where I found myself transported back in time to my very first experience of this local institution. I vividly remember watching incredulously as Snow White ice skated round the North Pole with a crowd of penguins, singing a cheesy lounge version of "Shining Light" by late '90s punk pop band Ash, a propos absolutely nothing (and long after that song had troubled the charts, or my memories). Sitting there with a disbelieving grin on my face, the overwhelming thought I had was “how did we get here?”

So it was as the curtain rose on the second half of this year’s panto, and pink spangly Star Wars Stormtroopers danced energetically and uncannily to an upbeat pop song. After a first half which just about gripped onto the classical storyline, either my interval drink was stronger than anticipated, or the post-break portion of the show lunged and plunged wilfully into even more of a festival of non-sequitur than usual.

Other than the recent release of the latest Star Wars instalment, there is no real justification (narrative, logical or otherwise) for the appearance of these dancing agents of the dark side. But who cares. This is the real joy of the York Theatre Royal pantomime, scripted as ever by Berwick Kaler. He is, as the opening number of the show acknowledges, the “longest-serving”—and this year “death-defying”—Dame: after heart surgery, he’s understandably less likely to fly in on a wire than in previous years and his beanstalk-climbing escapades are here performed via blue-screened video.

His regular side-kick, Martin Barrass, also had a worrying moment towards the end of last year and missed 2016’s show altogether due to a near-fatal road accident. He’s back, and skipping joyously round the stage to prove it. The core crew are thus reunited, aging (dis)gracefully, but showing few signs of letting up on the energetic and raucous comedy.

This goes double for David Leonard as Dr McCarb, villain extraordinaire, who sings powerfully, struts gamely and high-kicks and thrusts improbably. His patter with the audience is hilarious, and his performance of “It’s Hard To Be McCarb” is a highlight among this year’s particularly strong song selection.

Even while the script is still just about holding on to the notion of narrative, scenes deconstruct themselves brilliantly: a moment which essentially just requires heroine Jill (Suzy Cooper) to meet McCarb and get spirited away by the baddie is exploded when Leonard refuses to play the panto game of “she’s behind you”. “Ludicrous”, he intones after a thoughtful pause. So instead they cut to the chase, he grabs her and she yelps “you guessed it, I’m getting kidnapped!” as she’s carted off-stage.

Cooper is, as ever, nimble, mischievous and wonderfully comic. She clings to the story for dear life, and along the way gets to try on a range of costumes and impressions. Speaking of which, David Leonard’s final transmogrification is one for collectors: a vowel-perfect impression of a well-known panto dame.

A J Powell provides a great turn as hero (of sorts) Jack Manley, and his dancing and singing is on fine form. Choreographed by Grace Harrington, the dance sequences are energising and varied, and the ensemble cast look like they’re having a ball with them. Luke Adamson returns to the regular cast with a finely deadpan comic performance as failed genetic experiment Useless Eustace, the world’s smallest Giant.

Damian Cruden and Berwick Kaler’s direction keeps everything moving at pace, and the two-and-a-half-hour running time flies by, powered by oddity, silliness and song.

And as mentioned, the songs this year (under Elliot Styche’s musical direction) are spectacularly varied and strong, from the first number’s parody of Neil Patrick Harris’s famous Tony Awards opening (“Not Just For Kids Anymore”) through generic lurches which take in '60s classics, a surprisingly touching elegy to a cow (“Auf Wiedersehen Pat”), and a full-throated, all-out rendition of “When You’re An Addams”. For no particular reason.

Look, I give up trying to apply logic, aesthetics and critical standards to this self-proclaimed load of rubbish. Just go. Be amazed, amused, confused, gobsmacked. We don’t do ratings at BTG, but if we did I’d have to give it five stars. Or five million. Or -0.5, who knows. Brilliantly bonkers.