Jack and the Beanstalk

Jude Christian and Sonia Jalaly
Lyric Hammersmith Theatre
Lyric Hammersmith Theatre

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The cast of 'Jack and the Beanstalk' at the Lyric Hammersmith Credit: Helen Murray
Jodie Jacobs as Fleshcreep Credit: Helen Murray
Leah St Luce as Jack Credit: Helen Murray
Emmanuel Akwafo as Dame Trott Credit: Helen Murray

Thirteen years ago, the Lyric Hammersmith heralded a new chapter in its history by bringing pantomime back to its stage. Jack and the Beanstalk kicked off this bright new era, which is still going strong as the venue revisits the title for a fourth time.

As ever, the Lyric’s show is vibrant, dynamic and bursting with energy. Very few theatres in the country can match its electric atmosphere as the orchestra, this year on stage, launch into the opening number courtesy of Beyoncé’s "Break My Soul", heralding a contemporary and inclusive pantomime fit for 2022.

Sonia Jalaly and Jude Christian’s script contains so many exciting ideas to shake up the genre and make it relevant for today. It’s out with the usual romance narrative and any whiff of royalty and in with Maddison Bulleyment's trainee fairy Jill, who must grant best friend Jack three wishes in order to win her wings. Jill’s first challenge? Conjuring up a Gregg’s sausage roll for her hungry pal.

Leah St Luce’s Jack is everything a contemporary Principal Girl should be: feisty, fearless, bold and brave. With a sausage roll in her stomach, she’s ready to confront power and end Hammersmith’s oppression under Fleshcreep’s Machiavellian rule as he demands more money via a Giant Tax and is ready to retrieve prized possessions with his supersized robotic grabbing claw. Pantomime has always been political, and in a year of extreme inflation and political instability, Hammersmith gives power to the people and punches up. There’s even a satirical nod to a certain wilting lettuce.

But with so many ideas, the production feels somewhat fragmented and lacking in focus. Just as things get going, the panto is paused for frontcloth frivolity as Finlay McGuigan’s lovable Simon tries to win the spotlight with his "Simon Show", a quasi Dick & Dom in da Bungalow meets Crackerjack moment that returns throughout. Constantly cut short, he never gets to finish what he started, but perhaps this is all a clunky setup for his triumphant moment much later in the show when he ultimately saves the day?

A slosh scene featuring Dame Trott’s Little Miss Milk Maid Luxury Milking Booth 3000 offers great potential as a malfunction causes Emmanuel Akwafo’s riotous Dame to swap places with Daisy the Cow. But it’s all over far too soon without any build, structured development or payoff, despite some glimpses of comic excellence.

Perhaps the most muddled part is the show’s resolution, where the Giant—here Fleshcreep’s robotic munching machine, part Terminator, part Audrey II—eats Jack and is destroyed by poultry intervention. Messy direction from Nicholai La Barrie doesn’t help proceedings in a scene that draws inspiration from Star Wars and EastEnders’ Slater sisters to reach its Happy Ever After.

With Jack’s narrative that of quest, the pantomime’s romance falls to Jodie Jacobs’s Fleshcreep and Akwafo’s Dame Trott, who also provide much of the show's comedy through their romantic backstory. Jacobs’s villain really steals the show and in many ways drives it. Her megalomaniac menace commands the stage, summoning laughs and boos in equal measure. From the subtlest of reactions to her apathetic work experience student to the most colossal of all cackles as Fleshcreep cooks up his next darstardly plan, Jacobs knows how to work an audience.

Jack and the Beanstalk’s message of family, friendship, community and camaraderie is strong throughout, and it’s particularly welcome to see Jack's motive challenged when presented with the prospect of never-ending wealth. However, it is a shame that after all her hard work, no-one seems to notice Jill’s fairy wings upon graduation, or celebrates her success.

Jack and the Beanstalk presents all the panto staples and plenty of new ideas, it just needs a little more focus to really soar.

Reviewer: Simon Sladen