Jack and the Beanstalk

Nicholas Pegg
Harrogate Theatre
(2005)

This is the first of the four pantomimes I'll be reviewing this Christmas, and by gum it'll be a hard act to follow. Nicholas Pegg has not only provided the most erudite notes I've ever seen in a panto programme, he has also solved a problem that has tormented panto fans for generations - namely, how the heck did the wicked giant come to be living in a castle in the sky?

At last, with the aid of Carrie Gardener's delightful animated film, the truth can be told. Once upon a time the giant Blunderbore destroyed an inventor's cottage, ate the poor man and stole his magic harp and gold-manufacturing Midas Machine. The spirits of the forest banished him to a castle in the clouds and the inventor's widow (Heather Phoenix) became one of those mysterious helpful old ladies who infested the forests of pre-industrial Europe.

Many years pass and we are transported to the quaint Yorkshire village of Puddle-on-the-Green, where all is not well with dairy owner Dame Tilly Trott (Alan McMahon). She's about to be evicted for non-payment of rent, her eldest son Jack (Rebecca Stokes) has been forbidden to marry his beloved Jill (Laura Strachan), and younger son Simple Simon (Tim Stedman) can't even be trusted to do a simple job like cleaning the chimney, not even with the help of Jill's dad Mr Bumble (Howard Chadwick). The family is also being pestered by one Josiah Fleshcreep (Tom Peters), who dresses like a refugee from Kiss but is in fact a warlock keen to get his hands on the Midas Machine.

Despite being able to afford some of the most outrageous frocks ever seen outside a Vivienne Westwood, collection Dame Trott decides to sell her beloved cow Buttercup, a magnificent beast who seems to be from the same herd that produced The Magic Roundabout's Ermintrude. And we all know what happens when a well-meaning young lad sells a cow for a handful of magic beans…

Every member of the cast is a seasoned panto performer, with the wonderful Alan McMahon making his seventh appearance as Dame, and, under the direction of Lennox Greaves, they give a textbook demonstration of what this weird and wonderful genre is all about. A malfunctioning Midas Machine is dealt with in the best panto tradition (the cast carry on regardless) and local references abound. "At last we'll be able to afford a cup of tea and a fat rascal at Betty's," says Dame Trott after a miraculous upturn in the family fortunes. Terrible jokes ("What do you call a fairy who lives in a compost heap? Stinkerbell!"), lively song and dance routines, plus all the audience participation your eardrums can stand, make Jack and the Beanstalk a proper little Christmas cracker.

Three cheers too for designers Neil Bray and Lucy Campbell. The glitter has been laid on with a lavish hand and the painted backdrops are almost Victorian in their attention to detail. As for Dame Trott's costumes, I shall long cherish the memory of her Holstein print gown, cow appliqué pinny and hat decorated with pieces of cheese.

At the Harrogate Theatre until 7th January 2006

J. D. Atkinson