Sunday, 27 November 2022

REVIEW: Jack and the Beanstalk at the Lyric Hammersmith

Every Pantomime reflects its local community and in many, a style emerges which embeds itself in each new production. Berwick Kaler in York, Andy Ford In the Southwest, Kevin Johns in Swansea, Matt Slack in Birmingham and Elaine C Smith in Glasgow each has a distinctive style that is recognisable as “their show” and brings back the audience each year to celebrate Christmas. The Lyric Hammersmith situated in a diverse community in West London has developed its own style over the last thirteen years, setting itself the goal of moving the genre on to reflect the themes and issues it sees as connecting it to its young local community. Its programme for Jack and the Beanstalk proudly highlights the recycling of materials in the show, its casting is diverse and inclusive, and its adaptation sets out to innovate on a traditional Pantomime story.

It's fascinating to experience this approach which begins with the venue; with the traditional Frank Matcham auditorium transplanted into a modern bustling foyer space. We are presented with a colourful stage setting drawn from arcades & video games and a loud band of four (which often overwhelms the vocals) raised up on a platform above the stage in a design by Good Teeth. Rarely does this staging give any sense of location or the magic of pantomime but creates a square box in which the cast tries to tell the story. The Cow is nothing like the charming black and white panto creature of the programme pictures but instead, two people stood upright in a ludicrous gold skin that fails to generate any pathos or love. The Beanstalk, despite a row of audience blinders being flown in, does not grow magical from the small bean but instead is a large structure flown in from above and strong enough to be climbed with visible safety wires. The Giant is not some fearful tall creature stomping around the stage, but a large box borrowed from Minecraft that slides forward. As a result, there is no magic or spectacle.

This leaves a great deal for the cast to do to tell their story and for that, they need a good script and some witty jokes and stage business. Jude Christian and Sonia Jalaly’s script fails to provide this and relies instead on its messages for the young and old in the audience. The best gags come early on when we meet the trainee fairies selecting their godchildren and then a promise of no more political jokes after a joke about not thinking it's funny anymore that the rich are lining their pockets. There are messages about “Respect having to be earned”, “Hardship in the town”, about not stealing, about “how empty I was”, that “real friends are always there for you” and not having to “seek validation”, Yet there is no coherent wrap around storytelling to make the messages have meaning. When they resort to the traditional ghost scene, they even drop the punchline. It might be enough to engage the very young but it's simply not good enough for young adults and their parents.

Maddison Bulleyment tries to carry the show as Jill, Jack’s godparent friend and they do a very good job presenting a caring persona with a very good eloquent delivery of a monologue about our Hammersmith community, some lovely songs and plenty of engaging energy. Jack, played by Leah St Luce seems detached from them, seemingly obsessed with being the hero. Fleshcreep as played by Jodie Jacobs is full of evil intent and plenty of high-energy effort and does have some good business with the work experience assistants.

The comedy business led by Dame Trot (Emmanuel Akwafo) and Simon (Finlay McGuigan) is underdeveloped and weak. The “Simon Show”, the audience partner selection, the milky “world of milk” prop, and the “milkshake Shake up” are all good creative takes on traditional pantomime business but don’t work although we can see the germ of the idea. They feel like scene change fillers when they could have been developed into comic highlights.

It is not enough to be loud and bold, shout the lines and rush with high energy around the stage. We need balance and nuance in performances, we need comic business that builds to a good finish, we need magic and illusion to mystify us, and we need a storytelling narrative that engages us throughout the running time. Then the worthy messages have a context and meaning that we can take out into the real world and spread the word which is a very powerful objective that Pantomime done well can achieve.

Review by Nick Wayne 

Rating: ★★

Seat: Stalls, Row E | Price of Ticket: £35

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