Sunday, 22 January 2023

REVIEW: Jack and the Beanstalk at the London Palladium

The London Palladium has been the undisputed home of quality variety for many decades and since 2016 has been the home of the biggest pantomime, not only in London but in England with more stars, bigger ensembles, grander sets, and special effects and has built an adoring fan base who know what to expect from Julian Clary and his returning band of co-stars. They know what works and sells the tickets even at the huge prices of £160 for the best stall seat. The confidence the team now have in the formula enabled them to take the bold decision to remove around forty of the premium stalls seats to accommodate the base of the beanstalk that grows up into the auditorium roof to end Act 1, enough lost Gross Box Office to fund most other regional pantomimes! It makes for an impressive if rather telegraphed Act 1 finale but does not reach the stunning spectacle of the upside-down motorbike or double-decker bus flying over the audience in other shows.

The production honours the traditions of Music Hall variety and Musical Theatre concerts that have graced the stage before and as Clary gleefully acknowledges the plot rarely gets in the way of the next turn. Each star is given their moment to deliver their turn alone or in partnership with a CoStar and many of the best-loved routines are included from previous shows and especially from Matt Slack’s Birmingham Hippodrome productions and other Crossroads shows of the last few years. The lip sync routine, the trunk of truth, the tongue twister, If I were not upon the stage, the dance-off, “Who’s at first base”, and even young Nicholas in the songsheet all get included and are well executed but crisper fresher versions have been done in prior years. 

This is not a family pantomime like the ones that ran around the country in December, but the audience knows what to expect and laps up each obvious smutty innuendo from both Julian Clary and Dawn French, the headline names on the bill, and it hardly needs the saucy French to remind them that the jokes are “inappropriate”. Clary looks magnificent in a set of stunningly elaborate costumes representing different beans from Runner bean, Mexican bean, Baked bean, French bean, Sunflower, Organic vegetables, and a bumble bee in which he sashays carefully across the stage with enormous heavy looking headdresses and his comic timing remains as sharp and effortless as in previous years. He delights the audience by somersaulting while parachuting back to earth from cloud land and like that the show revolves around him.

Alexandra Burke follows up on her pantomime debut last year with another fine performance as Mrs Blunderblore including her hits “Bad Boys” and “Hallelujah” and Gary Wilmot delivers another excellent list patter song about illnesses with a great audience callback of “you have not been well”. Indeed, musically the show choices are superb, mainly for Jack (Louis Grant) and Jill (Natalie McQueen) and Pat the cow (Rob Madge), with some wittily rewritten musical theatre songs from Joseph, Into The woods, Me and my girl and Les Mis as well as other classics like Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the sky” and Queen’s “It’s a kind of magic”. 

Paul Zerdin and Sam repeat the ventriloquism act of previous years and Nigel Havers continues with his walk-on part albeit with a character name, both should have better material to work with and hardly get a look in. They are overshadowed by the three huge and effective giants of Act 1, the magnificent beanstalk, lavish costumes including dancing chickens and a ludicrously large hamburger pushed on for a very quick one-line gag. The final battle with the Giant by Jack and Jill falls short with the illusion lost as two ninja-dressed crew manhandle giant fists below a cloth head which is way below the standards the show promises elsewhere. Indeed, a little more magic and illusion would add sparkle and variety to show and when Nigel Havers appears on a raised cage you anticipate a spectacular illusion before he is almost immediately wheeled back off.

There is no denying this a variety show on a grand scale fitting for the Palladium stage and adored by the audience fan base with a deliciously smutty Clary, a saucy French, a witty Wilmot, a marvellous Burke, a naughty Sam, a charming Havers, a balletic Gaunt, a winsome McQueen and a gloriously camp Madge each having their moments centre stage. The whole show is devised by the cast under Michael Harrison’s supervision, and it must be hoped that when it returns for an eighth spectacular season in Christmas 2023, they will add in some storytelling and plot to truly bring Pantomime back to the Palladium stage. 

Review by Nick Wayne 

Rating: ★★★★

Seat: Stalls, Row G | Price of Ticket: £135 

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