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Jack and the Beanstalk

Gerry Tebbutt, based on an original script by Chris Jordan
Yvonne Arnaud Theatre
(2011)

Jack and the Beanstalk, Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

There is always a very special, friendly and welcoming atmosphere at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, especially so at the their annual pantomime bringing the audience flocking in for a festive Christmas treat. Not only the audience, but many of the same performers return year after year. It must be the amazingly versatile Royce Mills’s ninth time playing the Dame here, his first being in 1967 also in Jack and the Beanstalk, and the show would not be the same with him, his outrageous frocks and his habit of ‘doing his own thing’ sometimes to the hilarious confusion of his co-stars.

Guildford born and well-loved, Peter Gordon of Eagle Radio fame plays a rotund and pompous King Kuthbert and is now in his fifth consecutive pantomime here. Lloyd Hollett as Simple Simon is on his fourth and many of the Guildford School of Acting’s talented students make up the ensemble, with Rebecca Tyson, in her final year, presenting a very appealing and vulnerable Princess Jill. Also making for a very ‘home-grown’ traditional family pantomime, the eight ‘panto babes’, auditioned from hundreds of local children, are not only adorable but didn’t put a foot wrong throughout the whole show - or if they did I must have missed it. They had a lot of song and dance routines to master too.

Traditional it may be, and some almost identical sketches are performed each year, but somehow each time it manages to get better and better. The evening begins with Guildford’s Mayor introducing the show with his own brand of humour, although his reference to the Yvonne Arnaud as “An oasis of excellence since 1965” (when it first opened) could not be more true. After that, and a quick introduction to rivals Fairy Fuchsia and the villain Dick Dastardly, the show really takes off with a swinging rendition of “Can’t Stop the Beat”, and from then on Gerry Tebbutt doesn’t let the momentum drop for a second with around twelve scene changes flicking from one to another with amazing (if sometimes wobbly) speed and precision.

Imagine Theatre’s set, costumes, giant and beanstalk are particularly impressive even if the giant had lost a tooth - it only makes him look more scary (he is HUGE!), and the beanstalk’s appearance and disappearance are achieved as if by magic - well, it was, wasn’t it!

There seems to be more song and dance than usual, and the three musicians, under the direction of Steve Hill, do a great and convincing job of pretending to be a twelve-piece orchestra, making the show sing and swing as the story proceeds.

The jokes in the show are pantomime style - often groan-worthy - but always funny and there are lots of references to modern technology. Jack didn’t have a sat-nav to find his way up the beanstalk, but the adorable Bonnie Langford as Fairy Fuchsia brought him up on Skype with her iPhone, and how kind and understanding she was with the four children brought up on stage to have fun with Simple Simon.

The riotously funny Lloyd Hollett works his socks off as Simon, especially in the essential “Twelve Days of Christmas” taken at a gallop and with some very unusual offerings each day. This scene ends in total messy chaos, which the audience loves, but don’t sit too close if you don’t want to be involved in the ‘clean-up’ process.

Emma Thornett is the best thigh-slapping Jack I have ever seen. Feisty, assertive, attractive and she can belt out a song with the best of them. The best role is, of course, always the ‘baddie’ and Kit Hesketh-Harvey makes the most of it with an evilly suave and lecherous interpretation half way between Terry Thomas and Leslie Philips, and of course he gets all the boos and hisses he could wish for before he gets his comeuppance.

The whole show effervesces with exuberant life and fun and could not be a more perfect introduction to the Christmas season.

Until Sunday 8th January 2012

Reviewer: Sheila Connor