Jack and the Beanstalk

Book by Jonathan Harvey, Music and Lyrics by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe
Barbican Theatre
(2007)

Production photo

As a big theatre with a big stage and discerning audience, the Barbican is always likely to deliver one of the Christmas highlights of the year.

In the last couple of years, they have offered a great stage Tintin from David Greig and Rufus Norris, now at the Playhouse, and Mark Ravenhill's take on Dick Whittington and his Cat, which was as much fan as panto can be for all ages.

For 2007, they have enlisted a top playwright and Coronation Street stalwart, Jonathan Harvey, and the team behind the Mary Poppins songs, plus an experienced director and some popular TV stars.

With this support, Jack and the Beanstalk inevitably offers much enjoyment to both children and their older companions. However, it is patchy and has periods that do not live up to the promise.

After a poetically wordy prologue delivered from on high by Fairy Liquid, a Sue-less Mel Gedroyc, the opening is disappointingly flat as Harvey gets the oldest jokes out of the way before the arrival of perhaps the biggest star, Dame Dolly Deluxe. She is played by an old Glasgow pal of director Giles Havergal, Andy Gray.

This old campaigner really knows how to work an audience, combine smutty jokes with self-deprecation and charming energy to keep the children going.

The main focus is inevitably on leggy Jack, played by a winning principal girl Helen Baker, whose constant smiles seem to indicate genuine enjoyment as she first fights dear old mum, the Danny La Rue-like dame, then King Norman the Nineteenth to be allowed to woo the Princess.

In the another Scot, designer Kenny Miller's boldly coloured Pop Art town of Bog Standard, the meeting of Jack and Melody, the under-powered Alison Pargeter, becomes love at first sight.

This is nicely mirrored by a more passionate entanglement between Jack's brother, confident, estuarine crowd-pleaser, Ashley Campbell's Mad Matty and his saucy, scouse belle, the Princess' lady in waiting Donna Marie (Shelley Williams).

The real crux of the story has to wait until after the 2½ play's interval, heralded by the night's best song and dance, You Know You're Going to Climb It.

That is a battle with a silhouette giant played by Tony Jayawardena who is doubly good, playing the King's major domo too.

He lives at the top of a 40 foot high beanstalk with his sidekick and they play merry hell, kidnapping the girls and threatening the townsfolk until Jack becomes the Giantkiller, though how is never fully explained.

In addition to Andy Gray and Helen Baker, there is one other star, though the poor chap was short of the applause that he so richly deserved.

Little Britain's Steve Furst who has periods of Lenny Beige-ness, steals the laurels if not the plaudits as grey-faced, John Lennon look-alike, Beastly Boris (not Johnson for once). This anti-hero gives Jack a run for his money and gets all of the hisses and boos that he deserves from an appreciative audience.

The ending is happy with four marriages and milk (delivered already bottled) from a happy Daisy the Friesian. The kids loved it and the adults got a good number of laughs but the songs become repetitive, giving the impression that the show needed a couple more.

There are, of course, all of the ingredients that one has come to expect. We welcome every visit by Matty enthusiastically, bellow "Oh no your not!" and "behind you!" till we are hoarse and have a gratuitous competitive sing song that allows a giggly bum-bum-bum-bum finale.

Jonathan Harvey's will be far stronger pre-Christmas extravaganza than the average but, had it been more consistent, might have been considerably better.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher