Jack and the Beanstalk

Fine Time Fontayne and Chris Lawson
Oldham Coliseum Theatre
Oldham Coliseum Theatre
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The popular Coliseum panto has had some changes of personnel, but really it isn't much different to what they have been delivering each Christmas for years. Former Artistic Director Kevin Shaw left just as last year's panto was about to open, and current Acting Artistic Director Chris Lawson has taken over his panto roles as both director and as co-writer with Fine Time Fontayne, who has stepped aside from his usual role as dame for Richard J Fletcher, the Coliseum panto comic for the last eleven years, to don the dresses of Dame Dotty Trott for this new take on Jack and the Beanstalk.

And it is a new take, with some of the elements that most people know from the traditional story blended with some completely new storylines, not always logically or coherently but in some ways a brave attempt. This giant is already terrorising the town at the start by stealing all the electronic devices from the young people in the village—perhaps the result of adult writers trying to think of what children would consider to be the worst thing anyone could do to them. This does raise the question of why a beanstalk is needed at all to catch the giant if he comes down regularly anyway, but we still get the magic beans and a visibly growing beanstalk by the interval.

This giant also has a wife, Mavis Moorside (Jenny Platt, who doubles as Good Fairy Greenfield), acting as the panto villain to wind up the audience, as her husband, Malcolm Moorside, only appears in the first half as a disembodied voice. In the second half, he is revealed to be not a giant at all as you'd expect from the well-known tale but... well, no spoilers here, but if you watch the last half hour of The Wizard of Oz you'll get the idea. Before then, however, Dame Trott and her son Jack (Sam Glen) are in trouble with Lord Thickpenny Grabbmuch (Patrick Bridgman) and his incompetent sidekick Grotton (Sophie Mercell) for not paying the rent, made worse when the Lord's daughter Jill (Shorelle Hepkin) takes their side against her father.

This panto seems rather heavy with characters, all of which have to be introduced to the audience before any action can begin—it feels as though they must be queuing up in the wings at the start to come on and say, "hello, my name is..." for an introductory routine and, in some cases, a song: good fairy, principal boy (who is also the comic) and girl, dame, villain, 'broker's men' double-act. Jack and Jill prove themselves to be good at putting across a song with their opening number "Giants in the Sky" from Into The Woods, but their comic patter is overstuffed with one-liners, some of which are quite good if delivered well, but they don't give each gag time to land with the audience before the next has come and gone.

Grabbmuch and Grotton show great potential as a double act, both demonstrating considerable skill as comic performers, but they aren't given enough to do. They have some rather scrappy slapstick routines that don't go anywhere and in the slosh scene, after setting up for what looks like it is to be the classic decorating scene (still hilarious if done well), very little happens other than the dame squirting the audience with a water pistol and one person getting a bucket of paste over his head—hardly worth the trouble of the stage crew covering the stage in a plastic sheet.

The script seems to be trying very hard to be 'PC' and up with the issues that concern young people such as the 'environment', single-use plastics and so on (although they are still putting drinks from the bar in disposable plastic glasses and selling plastic toys with flashing lights in the foyer, most of which will probably be in landfill before Christmas) but it only mentions a few buzzwords rather than saying anything meaningful about them. The Fairy tells Jill that she, as the girl, will be the hero of the story, but she doesn't go on to play an especially prominent part in resolving it. Some of the suggestive humour for the adults is a little too near the knuckle to even be considered innuendo.

The innovative touch that works best is the treatment of Jack's cow, helped enormously by a fabulous performance from Mitesh Soni (who doubles as the Giant) as Hazy the Hippy Cow, who won't give milk as she has turned vegan. Some of the best gags are cow-related, in fact: there is a sign on Celia Perkins's usual book illustration style set design for "We Buy Any Cow.com", and Hazy sings "my milkshake brings all the boys to the yard" in a cool rendition of the Kelis song.

Dave Bintley leads a three-piece pit band on keyboards with Paul Allen on drums and Nathan Welch on bass, which would sound great if the Coliseum would invest in a decent sound system, but with the whole orchestration and singers through the same pair of speakers it sounds very muddy and distorted. When Bridgman's mic failed to come on in one scene, it made one wonder why trained actors need to be so heavily amplified for dialogue in such a small venue when they can be heard perfectly well without.

Even though the story has been approached in a new way, many of the traditional elements are there: the comic has the audience shout a catchphrase back at him, there is an 'it's behind you' scene with a ghost, the dame and comic have a songsheet scene with the audience and get kids from the audience on stage, there's a villain to boo and a final battle scene. Before press night, there had only been one matinée performance, so the performance will likely change a lot as the cast get used to responding to an audience.

For me, the stars are the cow and the double-act, neither of which we see enough of, while many of the elements of panto, together with the new approach to the story, are fine in principle but in practice could have done with a lot more work and a lot more content.

Reviewer: David Chadderton