Jack and the Beanstalk
Phil Lowe and David Bown
Pantomimes come in all forms and flavours, but at their heart should be the warmth and youthful atmosphere of this most traditional of winter entertainments. Harrogate’s take on the panto has been developing over recent years, with a growing family of creative individuals coming back time and again to work on successive shows. What results is a fun, energetic evening full of the simplest pleasures the theatre has to offer.
This year’s story, Jack and the Beanstalk, has been embellished by writer David Bown and writer-director Phil Lowe as might be expected, though within the form it’s very traditional and good, clean entertainment in general. The embellishments introduce roles for regular performers such as Tim Stedman as Simple Simon, the brother of the eponymous hero (the principal boy here played by fellow returnee Katy Dean). Stedman is in many ways the comic heart of the play, with his character having the lion’s share of the soliloquies and running ably through a number of classic routines.
The setup is speedily—somewhat overcompressedly, perhaps—expounded by the Jolly Good Fairy (Polly Lister): the Giant has stolen clouds from all over the kingdom, using them as the foundations for his sky-bound castle, with the consequence that rain has not fallen in a long time, and King Bumble’s (David Kendra’s) kingdom is nearing crisis. Dame Trott (Chris Clarkson) and her sons Jack and Simon are threatened with eviction if they don’t sell their trusty cow, Buttercup.
The Dame can in some productions be an overpowering central figure, but here, in part due to the lack of ‘big name’ stars and the return of so many stalwarts, the overall feel of the show is much more that of an ensemble: each performer is given a share of puns and audience interaction. Clarkson’s Dame is relatively restrained—and the script does not resort to cheap man-in-a-frock innuendo—which is pleasing to see and means that the sense of all-round family fun is maintained.
King Bumble himself is a kindly presence, David Kendra towering over the rest of the cast but beaming (occasionally somewhat bemused) benevolence even as things go from bad to worse.
The villain of the piece, Fleshcreep, is also charismatically incarnated by Philip Stewart, with a wonderful smiling sneer. His solo number, ‘Bad Man’ (to the tune of ‘Soul Man’) was a highlight for me, as he dances and sings magnetically in a surprisingly accurate James Brown impression. The squealing pre-teens in the audience left (temporarily) terrorised by his later appearance in the circle, however, may indicate that not everyone took to Fleshcreep in the same fashion—but Stewart certainly entertains and spooks in exactly the right way.
Rachel Windsor, as Jack’s love interest and the daughter of the King, has perhaps the least to do, but she too feels a true part of the ensemble and has a wonderful singing voice—as, it should be pointed out, does Katy Dean as Jack. Dean infuses the show with the necessary sense of derring-do, and slaps her thigh with the best of them. It’s impossible not to fall for her as she reaches the Giant’s kingdom and exclaims ‘Well, phew and wow in equal measure!’
Polly Lister is a prim, goody-two-shoes Good Fairy, restricted mostly to narrative duties, which she accomplishes with a winning smile. But when she reemerges as the Giant’s cook, Morag, she is almost unrecognisable. Morag was a firm audience (and personal) favourite, Lister’s physicality and facial expressions entirely transformed, her comic timing and conviction joyous.
Along with reworked pop songs and all the expected (and some unexpected) comic routines, this is a winning formula, particularly suitable for younger theatregoers, as the dynamics of each scene are clearly set out and the performers are so likeable.
There are more lavish pantomimes around, but this design (by Richard Foxton, lit by Alexandra Stafford) has a lovely picture-book feel, and the appearance of the Giant is an impressive coup de théâtre which makes the showdown in the castle all the more magical.
Reviewer: Mark Love-Smith