Jack and the Beanstalk
Written, directed and produced by Michael Harrison, with music and lyrics by Olly Ashmore
Theatre Royal, Newcastle
Pantos don't get any better than this.
Take a cast and creative team which is steeped in (and respectful to) the pantomime tradition, add a very definite local feel and the high production values which are typical of Qdos pantos, and you have a show which is bound to be a great hit for the Theatre Royal.
It's written and directed by Tynesider Michael Harrison specifically for the theatre and the company, so the local references aren't, as it were, "bolted on" to give a generic panto some local appeal, and three of its stars - Jill Halfpenny as Mother Nature, Craig Conway as the villainous Snot Gobbler, and Lauren Hall as Princess Jill - are local. Incidentally this was Conway's first panto - he is much better known as a serious actor who has worked with (among others) Northern Stage, Live Theatre and Theatre Absolute - but you couldn't tell as he throws himelf into the role of villain with enormous gusto.
They are joined by father and son double act Clive Webb and Danny Adams, who, along with Halfpenny and Hall, appeared in last year's successful Cinderella. They are back - as the old saying has it - "by popular demand", and it's easy to see why. Adams makes an hilariously funny Jack and he achieved something which I thought impossible - he reconciled this old traditionalist to the idea of a male principal boy! Then there's Brian Godfrey as the Queen (Camilla Parker-Bike) who began his career appearing with Judy Garland, so he knows a bit about entertaiment!
Completing the line-up are a four-man, four-woman ensemble and the Babes from Marron Theatre Arts - and, of course, Shearer the cow.
This is a cast which gells perfectly, full of energy and fun with just a touch of the anarchy which makes panto so different from other theatrical forms. Those who have to - Halfpenny, Conway, Webb and Adams - strike up a great rapport with the audience, both children and adults.
Good though all the company members are, the bulk of the show is in the hands of Halfpenny and Adams and they relish every second of it, especially getting the audience to respond to their catchphrases - Adams' "Eeeee!" and Halfpenny's "Is everybody happy?" to which the answer is "Why aye, pet!" Adams is a very talented clown: there's a wonderful extended variation on the juggling plates gag and he even manages to juggle three flaming torches whilst balancing on a unicycle. And Halfpenny's Vicky Pollard was an absolute joy.
There are just so many good things in this show that it's impossible even to mention them all.
Harrison has played around with the traditional story. Dame Trott has gone, replaced by Farmer Trott (Webb), and he has invented a new character, Mother Nature (Halfpenny), who combines elements of the traditional panto good fairy with elements of the Dame and not a little of the "canny Geordie lass". And why not? Panto is a growing, developing thing, even now in its fourth century of existence - if it didn't develop, it would die.
New ideas but set in a traditional context, a well-written and locally-based script, talented and enthusiastic performers, superb special effects - a huge animated giant whose head, upper body and arms almost completely cover the back wall of the stage and a beanstalk which grows out of the orchestra pit right up to the ceiling of the theatre, great scenery and lighting, great comedy, and an appeal to children and adults.
Too often pantos like those produced by Qdos rely on their glitzy production values and the lure of star names - something which we have seen in the past at the Theatre Royal - but not this one. I doubt if there's a better panto in the UK this year.
Reviewer: Peter Lathan