Jack and the Beanstalk
Towngate Theatre and Simon Fielding Ltd
Towngate Theatre, Basildon
Next year marks Simon Fielding's pantomime decade at the Towngate Theatre, Basildon. For the past nine years, he has built the Essex venue's festive show into one of the best pantomimes in the industry and, working closely with writer Brad Fitt and co-star Sophie Ladds, the terrific trio have created another successful season of fun with Jack and the Beanstalk.
In recent years, Fielding and Fitt have worked hard to bring greater depth to the pantomime by way of a prologue. This year's attends to the tale of Jack's father, the reason behind his disappearance, and puts family and the brotherly bond between Jack and Simon right at the core of the show.
From the very off, children are integrated as fellow actors and members of the ensemble which gives the production a unified and coherent feel. With the talent on offer, it is strange that more companies don't adopt such an approach. Seeing young Simon and Jack 'grow' stronger together as time passes echoes the tale's beanstalk narrative, with the two working as a team to defeat darkness.
Fitt's scripts always manage to add extra meaning to an age-old tale and this year's addition of a water well constructed by the boys' father just before he died provides another layer of sentiment as the Trotts seek to protect it from anyone who passes by. Not only does this enable plenty of scope for audience participation, but it yet again strengthens the family bond and feel of the show.
As Jack Trott, Philip Catchpole's interpretation of the Principal Boy is quite unique. He is a friendly everyman character, one with whom everyone can associate. In doing so, Jack's quest to rid Stinkybum of Giant Blunderbore and save the Princess becomes a very truthful, honest and selfless tail of heroism in which the audience fully invests.
His brother Simple Simon, played by Fielding, provides much of the show's comedy and energy as he bounds about the stage capturing the essence of an eight-year-old. This year, Fielding is joined by Nick Barclay as his mother and the two work well together with Barclay's Dawson-cum-Cooper-esque Dame keeping her sons in shape.
An inventive slosh scene with a malfunctioning ice-cream van doesn't quite hit the mark as the slosh comes too slow and the scene seems rather flat without any underscoring to accent and highlight the comic moments. The absence of music here in such a musical show leaves the scene feeling rather vacuous as sound permeates almost every scene adding great atmosphere and emotion.
Indeed, music becomes the focus of act two when, in order to distract the evil Desdemona, Simon introduces her to the world of musical theatre via Something Rotten!'s comedy number "A Musical". In the role of Desdemona, Ladds relishes the opportunity to be mean with her icy, sultry Desdemona always ready with a put-down as she walks her 'ferals'; children kidnapped from Stinkybottom.
The transformation in Ladds's Villain as she embraces the world of musical theatre is full of comic gold due to the stark contrast between Desdemona's before and after. Ladds is a strong pantomime performer and the boos and laughs she achieves are due to her exquisite characterisation.
When Desdemona goes to kidnap the Princess, she disguises herself as a frail little old lady. When she looks set to fall, the Princess comes to her aid, only to be captured when Desdemona reveals herself. The subversion of the Fairy Godmother sequence in Cinderella makes this act of villainy even stronger and adds another evil episode to Desdemona's tally.
Fielding, Aisling Duffy and Ashleigh Honeyghan's choreography is some of the most exciting in Pantoland and the Towngate Theatre stage never settles for a few sways and box steps. The six-strong ensemble execute their moves full of passion and precision and the glorious tap-dance conclusion sets the standard for pantomime finales across the nation.
Catherine Hayworth makes for a feisty and friendly Principal Girl with Emlyn Glanmôr-Harris as her eccentric and lovable father the King. Natalie Windsor's Fairy could tone down her frenetic nature to make her Immortal even more magical in a production full of sparkle, spectacle and showbiz-pizzazz.
Reviewer: Simon Sladen