Jack and the Beanstalk

Toby Hulse
Goat & Monkey
Southwark Playhouse

Daisy the Cow and Jack (Bea Holland)
Dame Trott (Ian Summers), Jack (Bea Holland) and Squire Grabbum (Matt Prendergast)
Ivor Toolbox (Michael Bryher) and Danny (Ian Summers)

With such a host of Jack and the Beanstalks on offer this year, the Southwark Playhouse has hit on a winning formula with a production that explores not only the story of Jack and his magic beans, but also of how the tale came to be staged.

Little known to most audiences, every pantomime is visited by the Panto Inspector, a much feared being who can close down a production at the drop of a hat. With the Box of Delights Theatre Company's box office not making the rent each week, the Panto Inspector constitutes their very own Panto Villain as their story begins to echo that of the very show they're about to put on...

Goat & Monkey has produced a wonderful evening of pantomime-themed entertainment that combines the much-loved genre with the metatheatre of Noises Off. Audience participation is a key aspect to the show and when things don't quite go to plan, it is the audience who help make pyrotechnics come to life, Giants appear and their clothing and voices as posh as possible to meet the Panto Inspector's strict guidelines.

What makes Toby Hulse's script so clever is that peppered throughout the first half's controlled chaos as Box of Delights tries to fix the show before the Inspector's arrival, pantomime gags and set-pieces are interwoven with effortless ease. Many pantomimes struggle to find a reason for their inclusion, but Hulse manages this each and every time, with a slapstick and slosh decorating scene aiding the stage design, an its-behind-you sequence assisting with the whereabouts of the beanstalk and plenty of "Oh No He Isn't"s to keep everyone up to date with Box of Delights master plan.

Post interval, the theatre receives its very own transformation and the arrival of the Panto Inspector heralds the start of the 'show'. Unfortunately for Box of Delights, pantomime's lesson that 'Things aren't always what they seem' gets forgotten and the more they try to impress their new lime green suit wearing audience member, the more they fail as their paired-down version of Jack and the Beanstalk staggers through a series of mishaps, twists and turns.

Goat & Monkey has assembled a fine cast of four core performers who bring the show to life, assisted by members of the Southwark Playhouse Young Company. Their skills in comic timing and delivery are immaculate and the fact that their characters are so different allows great swathes of comedy to arise from their contrasting personas.

Matt Prendergast's Luke Boxer is hilarious as he seeks to gain revenge for the 'death' of his father at the hands of the Panto Inspector. His nostrils snarl and his eyes explode at the Inspector's very mention, traits which come to the fore when he takes on the role of Squire Grabbum in the second act.

As the "I hate actors" Stage Manager, Michael Bryher's deadpan-faced delivery of many a line demonstrates how less in comedy can always be more when juxtaposed with the high octane performances of his fellow cast members. Forced to play Fairy Liquid and adopt a Geordie accent to help save the show, many a comedic moment arises from the light ribbing of those pantomime performers who themselves grit their teeth through show after show as he reluctantly prances across the stage complete with bubble wand in hand.

The controlled chaos is organised and kept on track by the bumptious Dierdre Lights, played by Bea Holland, who constantly reminds her fellow actors of their roles and places in both company and production. Her Jack remains full of beans when everything around her looks like it could fail with Ian Summers as Danny, and later Dame Trott, really capturing the joy of playing Dame and the essence of pantomime performers so passionate about the genre that they can't but help use a gag or phrase whenever the occasion calls for it.

Goat & Monkey has created a show that celebrates pantomime and affectionately jests at the genre. A must see for all panto passionistas, this Jack and the Beanstalk deserves many an outing in years to come.

Reviewer: Simon Sladen