Jack and the Beanstalk

Bart Lee
Wilde Theatre, South Hill Park

David Blackwell (Jack), Francesca Eve (Jill), Amy Newman (Daisy), Julian Hirst (Old Ma Donald)
Amy Newman (Daisy)
David Blackwell (Jack), Francesca Eve (Jill), Julian Hirst (Old Ma Donald), Amy Newman (Daisy)

Jack and the Beanstalk has enjoyed numerous adaptations and interpretations since it was first published in 1807. The pantomime version of the tale, of course, is now a staple of Industry portfolios and this year constitutes the third most produced pantomime title of them all. Productions’ narratives differ slightly depending on cast and company, but in Bracknell, South Hill Park has put a very different spin on the usual pantomime tale.

In terms of narrative, the staples of the story remain: Jack is still sent to market to sell his cow and after aquiring some magic beans he still climbs a beanstalk, but there the similarities end.

In this pantomime version there is no Fairy, and Fleshcreep plays a much reduced role indeed. Instead, the action focuses on Jack Donald, his Old Ma and their life down on the farm. With no Baron or King, Jack and Jill enjoy a romance from the off, which, although good for the course of true love, means poor Ma Donald is bereft of a sparring partner.

With the story centering on Jack and his climb of the beanstalk there is a real lack of conflict, especially between Good and Bad. Writer Bart Lee has been forced to invent a number of subplots to flesh out the narrative, one of which comes courtesy of Britain’s Got Talent as Old Ma Donald auditions villagers with the hope of profiting from their performances post-panto. Acting as a front cloth piece, this device is used throughout the first and second act to pad out proceedings and although it provides an opportunity for the juvenile ensemble to show off their talents, it feels completely detached from the show.

Without a Fairy, it falls on French exchange student Monsieur Maurice and a rather complicated plot to provide some magic to the piece. Monsieur Maurice also acts as the pantomime’s Comic and although he does not enjoy a lot of audience interaction, perhaps this has something to do with him visiting England to learn more about the absurdities of British humour and being unable to master them?

In fact it is Maurice, disguised as Professor Potty, who provides Jack with the magic beans in a subplot that sees Maurice as Potty winning Daisy the Cow in a madcap pie-eating competition. The reason behind his acquisition becomes clear in Act Two when, with Jack, Jill and Ma having been captured by the Giant, he releases his secret weapon ‘Super Moo’ to save the day. By writing out the Immortal battle, Lee has dispensed with the narrative framework required for pantomime and in doing so the production resembles a children’s musical that utilizes some of pantomime's conventions.

The cast make the most of their roles with Dame and director Julian Hirst a dead ringer for Norman Evans, even leaning ‘over the garden wall’ in the opening scene. Sadly, due to the complicated nature of the plot, the show is rather wordy and ploddish in places, with its newly-commissioned score ambling along as refrain after refrain is repeated.

Although we don’t see the Giant in full, an impressively large hand whisks the heroes to the Giant’s lair and Victoria Spearing’s design makes good use of the Wilde’s space. Cottages rotate and open, beanstalks inflate and the Giant’s workbench acts as a wonderful scale model complete with nail-jail. Beautiful puppets by Axtell Expressions are used throughout; however, lacking experienced puppeteers means they often appear ‘dead’ and syllabic diction is only achieved on occasion.

South Hill Park’s Jack and the Beanstalk is a pleasant Christmas show for younger families, but nowhere near the “rollercoaster ride of thrills and spills” promised by Old Ma Donald. More conflict, less quest, more pace and less plot is required to conjure up a magical pantomime full of beans.

Reviewer: Simon Sladen

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