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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. 

Wednesday, 21 December 2022

REVIEW: Jack and the Beanstalk at the Hexagon, Reading

There is no substitute in Pantomime for a great script and a cast who work as an Ensemble to deliver a good show. Reading Hexagon is lucky to have Justin Fletcher and Paul Morse in their ninth season together with Ryan Alexander Full and Rachel Delooze returning for a second successive year at the venue. Following their success together in Beauty and the Beast last year Justin Fletcher again writes the script for the show and together with director Steve Boden, cleverly refreshes many of the traditional pantomime business to create a practically perfect pantomime for the young Berkshire audiences. The result is a show with a well-judged two-hour running time that engages the audience and keeps the young children from babes in arms upwards entertained throughout that time, demonstrating that Fletcher knows how to connect with his young audiences.

Justin Fletcher as Gil, the brother of Jack, has a commanding effortless stage presence and after an amusing entrance in a Dodgem car (for no obvious reason except he had one in stock) as usual reminds his fans of his alter egos from TV and touring shows and then settles into his routines. Most are delivered with his “partner in crime” the brilliant Paul Morse as Dame Trot (this year) who has an equally strong stage presence with a booming voice, fluttering eyelids and a knowing cheeky grin. They give us a slosh scene routine with plenty of thick gooey white slosh and a magnificent large syringe (a demonstration of the art that many other performers should watch), a refreshed tongue twister “Susie sits in a shoeshine shop” about sold-out sausages (showing the slightest updates give a routine a freshness), the “Chapel Bells” routine (with a twist in the end), a perfectly executed milking scene (with an amusing stage hand gag) and a traditional ghost bench scene with creepy crawlies. Each slightly tweaked the tradition satisfying both first-time audience members and regulars equally. It is shame they did not tweak the “12 days of Christmas” and “a bra that was made to hold three” routine which still works but needs a refresh relevant to the pantomime title. They even cleverly referenced the success of their wonderful “Balloon Ballet” in the last two years which had the audience begging for a reprise to be met with their refusal to good comic effect. It is wonderful to see these two masters of the comic pantomime business delivering these routines.

Sunday, 11 December 2022

REVIEW: Jack and the Beanstalk at the South Hill Park Arts Centre

Pantomime may be a wonderful Christmas entertainment for the family but at its heart is the storytelling that draws the audience in and makes them care about the characters, laugh at the silliness and will them to succeed in their goals. For that to work, the creative team need a great script to create a world in which the story can be told. The Wilde Theatre in South Hill Park Arts Centre in Bracknell is very fortunate to have such a fabulous team. Joyce Branagh’s script, her fourth for the venue is superb, recasting Jack as a girl out to save the town of Windy Bottom from the fearful Giant and his dastardly Victorian henchman who, it is revealed, is a Wizard of Oz-style master of the Giant. She adds references to solar energy and recycling to give it a strong modern message and adds a fresh twist on why Fleshcreep is so evil which gives the story a satisfying resolution. Victoria Spearing set design once again is imaginative, and spectacular given the staging depth and a gradual reveal as layers are peeled back and we get closer to Fort Fear in the clouds. It has pastel cartoonish colouring that is attractive to look at and practical to use. Together they create a perfect setting for the young energetic cast to impress.

Director Adam Stafford (who has directed there for the last five years) and choreographer Charlotte Steele (last 3 staged pantomimes at the Wilde) use this setting cleverly to freshen up the standard routines of milking the cow, the baking sketch, the drill routine, the ghost bench scene and the 12 days of Christmas. While other directors stick to what they know works, this team look to add a twist and fit it more strongly into the overall storytelling and while it may not all work it is incredibly refreshing to see old routines being lovingly evolved and played with. They add some interesting puppet work with a mini Dame and Billy and a cut-out puppet Giant which enliven the usual business of the story too although sharper lighting is required to hide the black “ninja” outfits that are used to present these puppets. And then they add a curious in-cast joke where a small fluffy yellow duck is passed from cast member to cast member on each entrance for no apparent reason apart, I suspect to amuse themselves and keep fresh the performances.

Sunday, 4 December 2022

REVIEW: Jack and the Beanstalk at the Corn Exchange Newbury

The creative team behind this year’s Newbury Corn Exchange Pantomime, as they have been for the last four years are Clare Plested, Adam Brown, and Amanda Wilsher (who also directs) and they had a clear concept underpinning this year’s show following last year’s success. The whole show is built around the musical choices of Musical Supervisor Dai Watts and played by the MD Josh Cottell and drummer Alun Watson and the thin plot is used merely to link the individual routines. It makes for a musical celebration and a party atmosphere that is fun and enjoyable but lacks some of the traditional laugh-out-loud moments and spectacle of Pantomime.

It opens very brightly setting the tone for the show with the arrival of Fairy Fabulous (played by William Beckerleg) dressed and impersonating Elvis Presley (definitely one for the older audience members as he includes Elvis’s lyrics throughout) who is then challenged about noise levels and singing in Newburyshire by Fleshcreep (a wonderfully silly and well-defined character by Matthew Cavendish). The Giant does not want any music and sends Fleshcreep down to stop them singing and playing music while the villagers want to burst into song at the slightest provocation. We then meet the chief culprit Jack (Sev Keoshgerian) who delivers two excellent songs from the 1944 musical Oklahoma! which give a bright upbeat start to the show. Despite the best efforts of an energetic young cast, it never quite reaches that level again during the show. Instead, we sit back and enjoy a jukebox show of familiar old hits with adapted lyrics.

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.


Sunday, 13 November 2022

Its that time of year again, OH YES IT IS! Pocket Size Theatre's 2022 Pantomime Preview

This year the Pantomime headlines will be grabbed by the two star-led, high-production value shows in London at the London Palladium and the Duke of York but there are plenty of other very good shows all-round the United Kingdom offering a very good Christmas family trip to the theatre. The Pantomime website ITS BEHIND YOU DOT COM - The Magic of Pantomime diary lists around 250 professional pantomimes around the country this year, so there is certain to be a show near you. The Charity UK Pantomime Association seeks to celebrate the very best of Pantomime with its Awards and past winners are one guide to which shows to book for.

The London Palladium makes a welcome return to proper storytelling pantomime this year after two variety-style productions with Jack and The Beanstalk and we can expect some stage magic for the climactic end of Act 1 climbing the beanstalk scene. However, it is the addition of Alexandra Burke (2021 Best Mythical Being Pantomime award winner) and Dawn French (2019 Best Villain Nominee ) that really catches the eye. They join the familiar line up including Julian Clary (Best Principal boy 2017 winner) so expect some outrageous adult double entendre, Paul Zerdin and Nigel Havers. These spectaculars have won, Best Special Effects 2017 & 2018, Best Musical achievement & Best staging 2017, Best leading man, Villain, Script, and Best Pantomime in 2018 and Best Ensemble & Best Costumes in 2020.

Monday, 20 December 2021

REVIEW: Jack and the Beanstalk at the Camberley Theatre

All around the country Pantomimes are opening to entertain their local communities this Christmas in a critical period for the financial health of that theatre for the year ahead after a turbulent last eighteen months for the sector. The Producers have a difficult balance to strike between the cost of investing in the production and the risks to the income generated in this environment with some audiences nervous about returning to live theatre. The result is that smaller venues have to put on a production at a fraction of the cost of larger city venues and inevitably it is harder to create a consistently good show. Venues like the small Camberley Theatre need our support and we want them to succeed in continuing to bring live entertainment to their community. 

This year their production is Jack and the Beanstalk with Suzi Budd returning as Director doubling up as an excellent villain Fleshcreep and Thomas Andrew Smith returning for a seventh season as choreographer and the trainee fairy Colin, and the show depends on their contribution for its energy and creativity. They are the best two performers in the show and give it a lift when they are on stage with a good stage presence and reactions.

Friday, 17 December 2021

REVIEW: Jack and the Beanstalk at the Orchard Theatre, Dartford

Pantomime is at its best when the cast works together with energy as a team to deliver the show and the pace and balance of the production is maintained through the production. Christopher Biggins is a hugely experienced Dame but at seventy-two and with a knee replacement earlier this year he needs to pace himself through the show which he does with elegant ease popping on and off the stage at regular intervals like a watchful mother of the show. He has worked before with Rikki Jay who plays Simon and David O’Mahony who plays Fleshcreep and you sense that these two inject the energy and changes of pace the show needs around him. They make a great threesome driving the show forward. 

Jay bounces around the stage, looking like he is enjoying himself which helps engage the audience and keep the atmosphere lively as he builds a strong rapport with them. He delivers the shopping trolley sketch with great skill and lovely asides to the audience with the help of King Crumble (Derek Elroy). The standard Mastermind sketch and Lip sync challenge routines are delivered as if brand new and generate good laughs as does the other Crossroads standard, “Shirley shaw sells sushi”. The audience reaction reaches fever pitch in the song sheet replacement of “Bobbing up and down” which sees the whole audience joining in and rising and sitting on each word beginning with B to draw the show to a close.

Saturday, 11 December 2021

REVIEW: Jack and the Beanstalk at the Hackney Empire

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas which means it’s panto season once more…oh yes it is! After a year where most pantomimes were cancelled or had an unexpected, limited run it feels extra special for the magic of this beloved festive tradition to return. This Festive season The Hackney Empire, famed for their pantomimes over the years, brings the classic fairytale of “Jack and the Beanstalk” to life. 

I felt a warm welcome to my first experience of this iconic venue from arrival, especially warm as the interior was trimmed with wreaths and beautiful trees. The Panto programme is full of colourful pictures, games and puzzles for children (and most likely the adults too) to enjoy playing along with. I attended a 1.30 matinee which meant that the majority of the audience was very excited school children. The anticipation for the show was heightened with cast members dressed as newspaper sellers appearing on different levels of the theatre followed by a much-enjoyed countdown! 

Tuesday, 6 April 2021

REVIEW: Jack and the Beanstalk at the Theatre Royal St Helens (Online)

Jane Joseph and Chantelle Nolan, the mother and daughter team who run the Theatre Royal St Helens set the tone in their charming preshow chat reflecting on the Christmas Pantomime which was cut six shows short by the Lockdown. You sense the pride they take in their venue and the productions. We are told that the sets and costumes are all new and they look very good in the bright colours in the tradition of pantomime. Indeed, it is the combined creative talent behind this show that makes it a polished and enjoyable ninety minutes.

Directed by Chantelle Nolan herself with a script by the comic lead Simple Simon, Reece Sibbald, they tell the traditional story of Jack and the Beanstalk with a good balance of well-executed comedy routines and a great music selection. The Music Supervisor is Callum Clarke, and the choices allow some excellent dance routines by Choreographer Nazene Langfield with the leads and a chorus of four girls and two boys. As a result, the well-paced show has many highlights.

Friday, 2 April 2021

REVIEW: Jack and the Beanstalk at the Congress Theatre in Cwmbran

Although Pantomime these days is traditionally a Christmas event, there have always been Easter outings for some titles and while theatres remain closed this Easter several streamed versions are available. Congress Theatre in Cwmbran, South Wales, offers a seventy-minute Jack and The Beanstalk, and it is a fun well-produced and captured show that is sure to entertain young families.

Tom Whalley is a new name to me in writing pantomime scripts but following his excellent Pantolive production of Cinderella with all its interactivity, I was interested to see his more traditional pantomime script for this welsh production of Jack and the Beanstalk. He again sticks closely to the traditional version of this Pantomime story but peppers it with good and dreadful jokes. However, it misses the live audience and despite some audience reactions edited in you can still sense the challenge for the comic routines without the audience response. Even if we are laughing at home as we frequently are with his scripts the cast feel slightly muted by the absence of real interaction and are left weakly laughing at their own jokes.

Sunday, 3 January 2021

REVIEW: Jack and the Beanstalk at the Lichfield Garrick Theatre (Online)

Paul Hendy and Evolution have created bite-size pantos for streaming amongst the eighty offered during December by companies all around the country. They offer a taste of what Pantomime is all about and bring a little bit of festive joy into our homes. However they have shortcut the process by using identical scripts and music for the shows and having seen the Sheffield version, Damian saves Panto and the Canterbury version, Nurse Nellie saves Panto we hoped that the Lichfield Garrick version, Jack and the Beanstalk would offer something different. While the wrap-around theme is varied slightly for Jack and Beanstalk, the basic show is identical save for a few tweaks, I assume from the cast. It is also the most expensive of the three to buy.

The Garrick show is topped and tailed with sponsors messages and a request for donations to support the venue and this at least justifies creating three separate shows from a single production. It is well captured on the stage of the theatre with I think a pre-recorded music track but some good looking Beanstalk sets and gives an outing to the ten-foot Giant Pandemic when they climb the Beanstalk. 

Thursday, 31 December 2020

REVIEW: Jack and the Beanstalk at the Belgrade, Coventry (Online)

The challenge this year is how to pick which of the eighty online Pantomimes to purchase and watch as there are a wide range of titles and approaches to the new medium. One way is to go to the biggest producers of a normal year and select their offering and you can't go far wrong with Imagine Theatre who usually produce 14 shows each season. Their version of Jack and the Beanstalk sticks to the traditional storyline but innovates and plays with the medium to brilliant effect. 

It starts in an empty venue where two veterans of Imagine shows sit on the edge of a bare stage staring into the deserted auditorium and sadly discussing the absence of live shows. Craig Hollingsworth suggests doing an online stream to a bemused Iain Lauchlan. But as a writer, director and Performer, Lauchlan rises to the challenges to deliver a very clever up to date script and plays multiple roles. He plays the Fairy Fluff, Giant Blunderbus and Dame Trot, all in very good costumes and changing with some whizzy editing! Hollingsworth also has multi roles as King Cuthbert, Fleshcreep, and Simon Trott which means effectively one of the two is on stage most of the time to drive the storytelling along at a good pace. 

Thursday, 3 December 2020

REVIEW: Jack and the Beanstalk by Jack be Nimble in association with Everyman cinemas

2020 will be a year to remember for all the wrong reasons and the chaos for Theatre Producers in planning and staging plays will be most keenly felt this Christmas with the cancellation of so many Pantomimes. The usual family outing to a theatre to see this traditional entertainment with its familiar comedy business, audience interaction and mixture of silly jokes and adult innuendo has for many been postponed until 2021. However, one brave Producer, Scriptwriter and Dame, Peter Duncan has boldly recorded a show in his back garden to entertain us online, or in selected Tier 2 cinemas, and for that he deserves our appreciation, applause, and thanks. 

Duncan plays Dame Trot the central character and sticks to the familiar story structure including many well-worn pantomime gags and routines all aimed mainly at the younger audience with only one adult innuendo when a Beanstalk pops up overnight the Dame remarks “Reminds me of my first husband!”. He provides the charming context of the setting by imagining the show is in the mind of a young girl looking at a pop-up book of the story in front of an open fire and then sets it all in the garden of his and his neighbours house. Fortunately, he has a very grand looking house and extensive garden setting with the shed doubling as Dame Trot’s cottage. He retains all the encouragement for the audience to shout out responses at the screen which adds irony to the traditional villain’s response “I can’t hear you”!

Saturday, 7 December 2019

REVIEW: Jack and the Beanstalk at the Kings Theatre, Glasgow

There is no substitute in Pantomime for experience and teamwork to sustain the energy, audience engagement and surprises for over two hours of family entertainment and I doubt there is a better example in the whole country of such as show as this Kings Theatre Glasgow production of Jack and the Beanstalk. Elaine C Smith is the Queen of Pantomime with twenty years experience and has recently formed a brilliant partnership with Johnny Mac who has fifteen years to his credit and together with a great supporting cast and magical special FXs they deliver a first class show again this year. 

Elaine C Smith is Dame Trot (this year) and her every appearance is wonderful. Dressed in a fantastic array of costumes designed by Ron Briggs and Mike Coleman she charms the audience with her delightful comedy and strong vocals. Her first entrance is fittingly over the top in a giant globe and an IronBru dress singing "I'm still working til I'm 69" (to the Elton John tune) backed by the lively ensemble of eight. She follows up with a charming "Talk to the animals" with the kids and ensemble in good animal costumes. She gets the audience to join in with "Its a beautiful day" and "I would walk 500 miles" and ends with a Cher impression. She knows how to hold an audience and to work with the other cast effectively.

Wednesday, 12 December 2018

REVIEW: Jack and the Beanstalk at the Watford Palace

Andrew Pollard has established himself a very creative and innovative writer of pantomimes breathing fresh ideas in the familiar tales. Last year's Watford Palace Pantomime Aladdin was set in Norway and this year's Jack in the Beanstalk is set in Switzerland - even the flag is a big plus. This simple devise provides a springboard to reinventing the traditional story and introduce new twists and jokes. Jack(Oliver Longstaff) has arrived in the village of Tob-Le-Rone in answer to an advert from the Burgher Herr Brush (Walter Van Dyk) for a giant Sleigh driver but has misread the requirement for a Giant slayer. The Giant lives at the top of the mountain, stops it snowing and can be only reached by a cable car he controls. It provides a logic to the story and enables the Fairy (Charlotte Clitherow) to call for audience to yodel and the Burgher to warn the audience to "not blow the horn, leave the horn alone". It is a clever witty premise, however not everything that follows quite lives up to the set up.

The sets designed by Cleo Pettitt are colourful cartoons of Swiss landscape with signs to the swizz banks, a moving cable car and Swiss Chalet. The costumes are also very good especially the purpose made Dame's outfits including a cuckoo clock bra, an airplane, a Swiss Army knife and a good costume gag about painting the town red. The Beanstalk when it grows to enable Jack to bypass the Cable car is set too far upstage left to be fully visible and the Giant lair is rather simple suggesting the limits of the budgets had been reached!

Thursday, 11 January 2018

PANTOMIME REVIEW: Jack and the Beanstalk at the Theatre Royal York

As many pantomimes around the country close after their Christmas runs there is one that is still only halfway through its 76 show run and which is a unique tribute to this wonderful theatrical genre.Berwick Kaler has been writing , directing and playing Dame for 39 years and his experience and mastery of pantomime is clear from the start. This is a production firmly rooted in its own tradition and in its Yorkshire home and coming up from the south east to see it feels a bit like a interloper at some huge in joke which the rest of the local audience are in on. The core of the cast are regulars to Theatre Royal Pantomime and have performed together for years as we are often reminded of during the show. The fact that Kaler had a triple heart by pass in 2017 and his straight man Martin Barrass missed last years following a motorbike accident that nearly killed him adds a strong emotional connection to the affection the audience holds these two and their annual traditional outing. The audience itself is older than any other pantomime audience this season with hardly a child in sight, they have clearly grown up together.

The show is in sharp contrast to York's other pantomime offering at the Grand Opera House where Beauty and the Beast is a TV celebrity lead show with Debbie McGee (Strictly come dancing) Lynne McGranger (Home and away), Anthony Costa (Blue) and Ken Morley (Coronation street) and sticks to the traditional story telling approach, although this version feels a bit more like Cinderella than Beauty! 

Thursday, 7 December 2017

PANTOMIME REVIEW: Jack and the Beanstalk at the Salisbury Playhouse

Many pantomimes sell themselves on a poster of celebrities from children's TV and the soaps, corny and topical jokes and borrowed or reused sets so it is very refreshing to see a production that sets out to create its own unique feel while remaining consistent with pantomime traditions. Andrew Pollard's script and Ryan McBryde's direction achieve this with Jack and The Beanstalk at Salisbury Playhouse. 

You get a sense that you are going to see a production created with loving care as soon as you enter the auditorium and see the beautiful sunflower covered proscenium arch and large giants eye looking out with clever lighting highlights behind the clouds. The opening prologue by Jemma Geanaus as Fortuna (the fairy character) reinforces the fresh take on the familiar story and her active role in the story with a good rendition of "I need a hero" to defeat the gIant . The not so obvious choice of hero is Jack Trot (played by Sam Harrison) who with easy charm establishes himself as both the love interest and usual silly character.Richard Ede plays his mother Dame Dottie Trot with equal charm and delightfully plays to the audience. 
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