Jack and the Beanstalk

Script by David Lee
Pantoni Pantomimes
Gale Theatre, Durham
(2005)

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One of the great joys of panto is that when something goes wrong, it doesn't matter. If you're doing Shakespeare or Pinter or Ayckbourn or even Ray Cooney, and something goes wrong, you do all you can to cover it up and such is the skill of so many actors at thinking on their feet, they can usually console themselves afterwards that "the audience didn't notice". Even in the most desperate cases the actors attempt to hide the fault. Witness the apocryphal story of the thriller in which the gun, aimed at someone lying on the floor, didn't go off. After pulling fruitlessly on the trigger a number of times, the killer approached his victim and kicked him. "Argh! the boot!" cried the victim. "The boot is poisoned!"

In the Gala's Jack and the Beanstalk Jack (Mike Newman Jnr) is supposed to creep up behind the giant's evil henchman Fleshcreep (Paul Hartley) and sneak the key to the princess' cell off his belt, but in the press night performance it wouldn't come undone. They tried everything - Hartley even took the belt off - reducing Newman, Hartley, the imprisoned princess (Kirsti McDonagh) and the entire audience to helpless laughter.

But of course it didn't matter in the least because there's no suspension of disbelief in panto, no attempt to make what is happening seem in any way real. Panto is based upon complicity between the audience and the cast in accepting that anything goes, which is why jokes which in any other context have retired gracefully to the Old Jokes' Home are greeted with roars of laughter.

Last year's offering from the Gala, Snow White, was a little lacking in the comedy department because too much was on the shoulders of one man, Pee Wee Price as Muddles. This year the comic honours are shared more widely between Newman, Hartley, Peter Thorne (Dame Durden) and Geoffrey Hayes (King Geoffrey), and so there are many more laughs, with the result that the pace is much better. Even the good fairy (Emma Weaver as Fairy Beansprout) gets in on the comedy as a country bumpkin fairy with a Muckshire accent!

Wisely writer/director David Lee concentrates on the comedy, keeping the "romantic bits" short and sharp, enough to get the requisite "ahs" but not so long as to lose the attention of the kids. Indeed the obligatory love song between Jack and the Princess was short and sweet - just as it should be.

This is very much a panto in the traditional style - no slosh scene though: surely they could have worked one in somewhere? - with performers who know what panto should be and deliver it. It's the Gala's third and the best so far.

Reviewer: Peter Lathan