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Jack and the Beanstalk

Paul Sirett with original music and lyrics by Wayne Nunes and Perry Melius
Theatre Royal Stratford East
to

Stratford East’s track record for home-grown pantomime raises high expectations and once again they don’t disappoint. Once again this delightful theatre sends audiences home happy.

This year’s panto is in very good hands. Director Dawn Reid is no newcomer to panto but writer Paul Sirett is a new boy at the genre and he does a splendid job. He gives a proper plot that incorporates those special pantomime features and makes them a natural part of its exposition. There’s plenty of audience participation and a song-sheet number but they are all part of the story, never holding things up and becoming a shouting match, as at some other theatres.

There is an intriguing new twist on the story with Jack given an imaginary friend, skyscraper tall Dizzy, visible only to him and the audience. There are a couple of baddies called Biz and Boz who burgle Jack’s village disguised as recycling policemen, steal the magic beans then swindle Jack out of his cow Marigold and Lucy, a girl new to the village who turns detective, and the ogre’s singing harp and gold-egg-laying hen being personified as Harpo and Henrietta.

All the characters are given great personalities, they seem real people not just picture book cut-outs. There is a high spirited, if somewhat naïve Jack from Jorell “MJ” Coiffic-Kamall who may be doing his first panto, but it is hard to believe it, for he has a splendid rapport with the audience and some snazzy moves—but then he should do for elsewhere Jorell’s dance crew has won best UK Crew nominations.

Stratford stalwart Michael Bertenshaw is back as Dame. He exploits all the humour that is licensed by a man playing a woman yet still makes Augusta Trott a believable mother, though I don’t think the novels Augusta says she is writing will be as successful as this performance.

Gemma Salter’s Lucy is a positive girl character (no prim princesses in this show or thigh-slapping girls masquerading as boys). She does the pre-show audience warm-up and knows just how to handle it. There may be those who want to see an incipient attraction between her and Jack but this is a show for youngsters of all ages. There is no sloppy smooching to alienate the boys.

Windson Liong’s Mr Fleece (as in getting your money not sheep’s coat) is stylishly turned out. At first you may want to be him as the rapacious landlord but he reforms very nicely. Oliver Taheri and Jack Shalldo as Biz and Bos are also a likeable pair of villains: Boz wants them to start out a seaside B & B together and if it weren’t for the giant they might be quite nice blokes.

The giant is huge. He almost fills the whole stage and though there is no double-act front and back end to cow Marigold because she is a kind of puppet, she has the most beautifully bovine eyes that make her very appealing.

Jenny Tiramani’s settings aren’t numerous but they are stylishly effective. There is no big transformation scene as such but the kids in the audience were very impressed as Jack climbed the beanstalk into the clouds and among the planets. Harriet Barsby's costumes are colourful and amusing with Vlach Ashton’s Dizz a huge spotted rabbit but there is no holding up the story just for costume jokes. Instead they really do express the characters.

Up in Ogre Land, the Giant’s housekeeper Mrs Porridge (Susan Lawson-Reynolds) is kept every busy washing his huge underclothes or cooking up his favourite dinner (steak and kiddie pie). Allyson Ava-Brown, taking over as Harpo because of illness, is a slinking black-gowned diva with an elegant headdress, always wanting people to listen to her new song. It is worth listening to too: I reckon she could give Grace Jones a run for her money. Also the giant’s captive is Shelley Williams’s tap-dancing hen Henrietta, another lively performance with a touch of the Shirley Basseys when she is in full voice.

The songs are varied and tuneful. It’s a nice change to have the participation number a lullaby instead of a tier led competition (you get that in the warm-up) and with the composers on bass and drums joined by musical director Ian MacGregor on keyboards there is a great band. They may let rip but they don’t swamp the singers.

This panto is up there with the best. You can’t really compare shows that set out with different intentions. If you expect popstar names and speciality acts this won’t be one for you. If you want to see big money production values rather than imagination on stage, prefer the same as before to Stratford East freshness this may not be for you. The Theatre Royal is a very special theatre and its pantos always have a very individual quality. That is the Raffles Square tradition. Long may it continue!

Reviewer: Howard Loxton