Jack and the Beanstalk

Paul Hendy
Sheffield Theatres and Evolution Pantomimes
Sheffield Lyceum

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Damian Williams (Dame Trot) in Jack and the Beanstalk Credit: Pamela Raith
The Company of Jack and the Beanstalk Credit: Pamela Raith
Wendi Peters in Jack and the Beanstalk Credit: Pamela Raith

There was an explosion of energy when Evolution’s Jack and the Beanstalk was performed at the Lyceum last night. Actors, ensemble and musicians were supercharged and delighted a packed audience with gags, familiar routines, a blaze of light and colour and a sequence of foot-tapping popular songs.

Damian Williams is again Sheffield’s outrageous Dame in an array of stunning and inventive costumes, especially one which defies gravity and includes a piano keyboard as well as Elton John.

The nursery story is eclipsed by additions to the plot but still includes magic beans, a pantomime cow and a very impressive beanstalk which grows before our very eyes. The familiar elements of the Sheffield panto are still there: dismissive comments about Donnie and Rotherham; the ghost bench sequence with zombies this time; the list of birthdays; the division of the audience into competing halves; all bound together by a continuous flow of innuendo, winks and nods from the redoubtable Dame Trot.

But there is also innovation in this production. As the villain, Luke Backinanger, Marc Pickering encourages a huge response by telling the children NOT to boo him. A roving camera picks out members of the audience whose images are projected on a giant screen. So-o-o embarrassing! And best of all, Waffle the Wonder Dog, not so much for his clever tricks but for his stage presence, remarkable timing and ability to upstage the Dame.

The performance is held together by child-friendly and reassuring characterisation by Sam Turrell as Jack Trot and Joey Wilby as Billy, while Wendi Peters is a strong and dynamic Fairy Sugarsnap who can sort out any problem. The most exciting innovation is the inclusion of Maxwell Thorpe, known as ‘the Voice of Sheffield’, whose remarkable operatic voice arrests attention whenever he has the opportunity to sing.

Marc Pickering is a wicked villain with a light touch. His variety of funny walks, myriad facial expressions and changing accents assure the audience that this is a comic villain not one to take too seriously or be frightened by.

The musicianship of the production is outstanding. Musical director James Harrison, now 29, has worked professionally since he was 15 and has had a meteoric career which has taken him all around the world. The programme talks about his "unique energy" which is clearly on display at the Lyceum, where he conducts a small group of talented musicians from one of the Victorian stage boxes. He also interacts with the cast to provide musical sound effects on demand and provides a rich and compelling musical accompaniment for the singing voices which drives the action forward.

The set is brilliantly illuminated and cheerful most of the time but also provides darker spaces when required. The costumes for the principals and the ensemble are brightly coloured and enhance the physicality of the action. The most intriguing ‘costume’ is in fact a large balloon which is still puzzling me.

This is a really exciting pantomime full of action and fun. A perfect start to the Christmas celebrations.

Reviewer: Velda Harris