Jack and the Beanstalk
Michael Harrison with Alan McHugh
Jack and the Beanstalk hasn't been since in Birmingham since 2004. A decade on, a new production graces the Hippodrome stage under the direction of Qdos Entertainment's Michael Harrison.
The Cameron Mackintosh of Pantoland, Harrison has developed the perfect formula for 21st century panto mixing stars with spectacle and this year's production is no exception.
Flying helicopters, 3D sequences and Giants galore fulfil the spectacle quota, whilst Jane McDonald, Duncan James and Chris Gascoyne provide the names necessary for such a panto on this scale.
In her debut pantomime performance, McDonald's Enchantress is an asset to the show and brings something previous Hippodrome pantomimes have often lacked: contrast. With her voice put to excellent use, she provides the much needed calmer, emotive moments as she spurs Jack on and reminds us of the magic inherent in the genre.
Set against Gascoyne's Hell's Angel of a Child Catcher Fleshcreep, she also brings some lighter touches to the role and even partakes in the "Twelve Days of Christmas" full of cod corpsing as the entire stage becomes prey to the front cloth piece’s mischievous nature.
The production is full of anarchy led by the master of mayhem Matt Slack. The physicality he brings to the role is unmatched with his energy driving the many front cloth scenes as he and Paul Zerdin as Silly Billy and Simple Simon are re-united for their second year at the Hippodrome.
Completing the trio, Gary Wilmot also returns for his second Dameship in Birmingham and has yet again written a delightful musical number for the show. "Trotty's Farm" sees myriad creatures jig, jump and moonwalk across the stage in a number that embraces pantomime's jollity. When the reprise returns as Dame Trot departs with her beloved farmyard friends, a sense of pathos is achieved delivered impeccably by Gary Wilmot’s warm Dame.
Harrison and Alan McHugh’s script dispenses with the King role, which leaves Princess Apricot fatherless and Dame Trot bereft of a prospective suitor. As with so many contemporary pantomimes, the sense of class conflict has completely disappeared from the Hippodrome stage, which paves the way for a simpler romance narrative and a focus on Jack’s quest up the beanstalk.
New touches, such as the Trots selling the farm to pay Fleshcreep’s ransom on the Princess, are welcome tweaks to the age-old tale and Duncan James’s casting cements a new era for the Principal Boy.
Dashing, fine-voiced and with a six pack to match, James is truly believable as the show’s hero. Pantomime has always been slightly far-fetched, but the sense of reality now demanded in the role has seen the almost extinction of the female Principal Boy and the creation of new interpretations, such as James’s.
No longer a boy, but a man, the alpha male is a relatively new addition to Pantoland, providing something for the mums and creating a figure for fantasy in a similar way that the female Principal Boys of yore did for the dads. James’s duets with the beautiful Robyn Mellor convey the passion between Jack and Princess Apricot and leave the audience in awe of the Happy Couple as Jack wins the day, defeats the Giant and saves Little Brum from tyranny.
With so many front-cloth pieces, the show embraces its variety roots and demonstrates how pantomime can act as amber, locking in the past, keeping it fresh and presenting it to audiences anew. Whether such an approach can be sustained as front cloths becomes repeated in subsequent years is difficult to judge and this is the Hippodrome’s biggest challenge should Wilmot, Slack and Zerdin become regulars.
A Brummie Beanstalk full of magic, the Hippodrome safely retains its crown as Britain’s biggest panto.
Reviewer: Simon Sladen