Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

Jack and the Beanstalk


King's Theatre, Edinburgh
(2004)

My first experience with the Panto form was secondhand, via my current flat-mate, who since September has been regaling me with stories about her plans for the Christmas break. These plans included seeing her family and friends, earning money, and working backstage at her local Panto. The way she described the genre made it sound like a Live-Action version of the board game Candyland, and my first response was that I couldn't see why anyone over the age of four would be interested in going.

But even my skepticism only lasted a few seconds into Jack and the Beanstalk, the Christmas show at the King's Theatre, and looking back I don't think I've laughed that hard in months.

For those who, like myself, aren't familiar with this singularly British form of theatre, it apparently involves a blend of musical theatre, tongue-in-cheek overacting, vaudeville magic acts, and absolutely breathtaking comic timing.

James Pearson may be playing the title character, but it's Allen Stewart and Andy Gray who steal the show. Playing Mrs. McTrot (Jack's mom) and King Crumble respectively, these two cavort maddeningly across the stage, backed by Charlie Cairoli as the Jester; enabling sets to change without letting the audience's attention waver. With an audience where ages range from near-infant to grandparents, this method of avoiding boredom between set changes (some of which were quite extensive) was extremely effective.

My friends and I thought the show had ended when the curtain fell, but it turns out there was still more to come. First, Andy Gray returned to the stage to read off birthdays and greetings - which was a strange enough way to end the performance - but next thing we knew, Allan Stewart had emerged with a guitar and a groovy, hot-pink one-piece outfit, and the two led the auditorium in a sing-along that shattered all previous records the production had set in absurdity.

The willingness to be absurd on stage is what stands out the most as I think back on the experience. It was different from watching a straight comedy show, or a stand-up routine, because the jokes were frequently good-natured and worked on two levels - one for the kids and one for the adults. At the same time, some of the gags were shockingly adult, but told with such stylized over-emphasis that one couldn't quite be shocked that they were being performed in front of kids.

From what I can tell from experiencing just one Panto, this is an art form that's about making people feel good. It's about making people laugh, and about making them understand that theatre is an important thing. It's about looking at the unique energy that's created by a live performance, and about being able to laugh at one's self.

In fact, after attending Jack and the Beanstalk, my only question is - since the cast isn't a bunch of people pretending to be stuck in invisible boxes - where on earth does that name come from?

Reviewer: Rachel Lynn Brody