Jack and the Beanstalk

Andrew Pollard
Lawrence Batley Theatre, Huddersfield

Robin Simpson (Dame Dorothy), Buttercup and Thomas Cotran (Jack) Credit: Andrew Billington
Robin Simpson (Dame Dorothy) and James McLean (Nightshade) Credit: Andrew Billington
Robin Simpson (Dame Dorothy), Megan Turner (Princess Jill) and Thomas Cotran (Jack) Credit: Andrew Billington

After the sell-out success of last year’s Cinderella—the Lawrence Batley Theatre’s first professional pantomime—the same creative team, led by director Joyce Branagh, has reformed to stage Jack and the Beanstalk. With Aladdin already scheduled for next year, the LBT panto looks set to become an ongoing (and much loved) Christmas tradition.

In case you were absent from school that day, young Jack (Thomas Cotran) lives with his mother, Dame Dorothy Trott (Robin Simspon) and their beloved cow, Buttercup. However, times are hard for the family and they’re forced to sell Buttercup in order to make ends meet.

When young Jack comes home with a bag of “magic beans”, Dame Dorothy throws them onto the ground in despair. And then a giant beanstalk begins to grow, leading to the sky-based home of a fearsome, man-eating giant named Bonecrunch.

Writer Andrew Pollard is a panto expert. Not only is he a seasoned dame at Greenwich Theatre with more than ten years’ experience, he currently has six different pantos playing across the country. He understands what the core ingredients of a pantomime are, and they are all in evidence in this charming and jolly production.

A couple of sequences stand out in particular. The first is a surprisingly drawn-out slosh scene in which a bandaged Dame Trott attempts to serve tea and cake to her guests as they sit on an ever-deflating sofa. The other, which ends the first half, is a spoof of “Bohemian Rhapsody” that borders on brilliance.

As with last year’s Cinderella, Joyce Branagh has assembled a strong ensemble of performers, each of whom is given their moment to shine. The panto hero is never the most exciting role, but Thomas Cotran brings charm and likeability to the part of Jack and demonstrates a talent for slapstick. The part of Princess Jill is perhaps a tad underdeveloped, but Megan Turner copes well in her first panto role and shows off a lovely singing voice.

James McLean is delightfully dastardly as Nightshade, Bonecrunch’s supremely camp henchman. I must confess that I got a serious case of the giggles when he started verbally attacking the pensioners in the audience. There is also strong support from Declan Wilson as King Crackpot and Heather Phoenix as the magical bean-seller Fortuna.

And then, of course, there is the dame—the most important part of the whole show. Robin Simpson does a sterling job in this demanding role, particularly as the audience on the night I attended was slightly depleted (snow-related travel woes?) and subdued. However, he soon won them round with his comedic flair.

Mark Walters’s storybook set designs and costumes are the quintessence of panto, delivering all the glitz and pizzazz that you would expect. I was impressed by the puppet they used to bring Bonecrunch to life, but the traditionalist in me would have been even happier if they had left him as a booming, disembodied voice.

For my money, Jack and the Beanstalk doesn’t quite reach the heights of last year’s Cinderella—for one thing, the story simply isn’t as good—but there’s still heaps to enjoy. The show is packed full of cheesy song-and-dance numbers, eye-popping sets, ridiculous costumes and groan-inducing dad jokes. In short, everything you could possibly want from a panto.

Reviewer: James Ballands