JACK AND THE BEANSTALK AT THE BIRMINGHAM HIPPODROME
Theatre Run: Friday 19 December 2014 - Sunday 1 February 2015
Performance Reviewed: Monday 22 December (Press Night)
Reviewed by Kyle Pedley
Matt Slack teaches us midway through Jack and the Beanstalk, tongue firmly in-cheek, that the counterpart to ‘Deja Vu’ is ‘Vuja De’, aka ‘I’ve never been here before’. It’s sold as funny, but in many ways it’s a coupling sentiment that encapsulates the entire panto ethos - plenty of the familiar, lashings of tropes, essentials and audience-favourites, all thrown into a suitably barmy melting pot with the new - new faces, and incremental new approaches to the same old handful of fairytale yarns. For some, the balance is not so even, leaning on the pulling power of star wattage, the genuine fondness of the public for panto itself, or a slew of tried-and-true set pieces and old reliables in the gag department.
Mercifully, no such accusations of complacency can be laid at the door of the Birmingham Hippodrome, where it’s 2014/15 pantomime, Jack and the Beanstalk, invigorates the formula with a resplendent, pitch-perfect cast, a host of dazzling technical innovations and sky-high production values and an all-round pantomime extravaganza of truly impressive proportions. In fact, it is in how masterfully it captures that balance of old and new, and executes itself as both a thoroughly traditional pantomime, with all of the beloved staples present and accounted for, through to implementing a slew of variety entertainment from music, slapstick and even Paul Zerdin’s wonderful ventriloquism, to the aforementioned technical wizardry that makes it such an irrepressible delight. Everything here is sheened, polished and perfectly judged, whilst naturally allowing plenty of room for intriguingly ambiguous corpsing and improv.
The Hippodrome oft boasts a cast to be envied, and this year is no exception. Former ‘Loose Woman’ Jane McDonald headlines as The Enchantress, bringing the same down-to-Earth, unassuming charm and matter-of-factness that won her a legion of fans on the ITV show and beforehand on BBC’s The Cruise. Some of McDonald’s own material and hits have been consciously woven into the musical interludes of the show, including a sensational, roof-raising rendition of ‘This is the Moment’, as her Enchantress summons an enormous, in-auditorium beanstalk toward the end of the first Act. Duncan James, similarly, is brilliant in the titular role of Jack, proving to be the ideal straight man (avoiding the shows own innuendos, there) amidst the mayhem and anarchy around him. He cuts a dash, sings a dream and is the perfect panto hero, though he does get a few nice moments to ratchet up the do-good, almost all-American cheesiness of the role. And, of course, few were complaining (grizzled husbands, aside, perhaps) when he treated the audience to a brief glimpse of himself sans-shirt.
Chris Gascoyne provides the show with a wonderfully detestable villain in the form of the Giant’s lackey ‘Fleshcreep’, including an Act II opening number which is made suitably repulsive by the presence of hideous (albeit impressive) trolls, striking costume design and Gascoyne’s own vocals. And, naturally, the Corrie quips are there throughout. Not that the audience fare much better, with plenty of jokes and digs being cheekily aimed at Midlanders and Birmingham in general. A well-timed jab at Dudley (my hometown) was particularly delicious. Panto regular Robyn Mellor once again impresses as Jack’s love interest Princess Apricot, and if I wrote in my review of Sleeping Beauty at the Wolverhampton Grand last year that Mellor has the clear makings of a Glinda the Good a la Wicked and a West End star in general, then the past year has clearly done nothing but cement this, with a beautiful duet of Beyonce’s ‘Listen’ with James proving to be one of Mellor’s rather stunning highlights.
Arguably, however, the true stars of the show are Gary Wilmot, Paul Zerdin and Matt Slack, who resume comedic duties after their hilarious turns in Snow White last year (which itself is quite wittily referenced here). Zerdin is Simple Simon, though brings along a duo of ventriloquist puppets, most notably mischievous young Sam. Zerden’s work is pure, delightful panto - and refreshingly offers as much for the adults as it does the younger in the audience. Most of his cheekier lines and material will sail over the heads of children, but be warned there is nonetheless the odd ‘crap’ and ‘arse’ thrown in that may be picked up on, and even the old ‘Shitzu’ gag. Matt Slack as Silly Billy, meanwhile, repeatedly steals the show with disarming ease, a mixture of inexhaustible physicality, seemingly endless impressions and hilarious facial expressions and razor-sharp timing making him a veritable tour-de-force of funny and silly on stage. Similarly, he isn’t afraid to venture into risqué territory and can sail close to the wind at times, but never to the point of offence or concern.
In fact, it is incredibly refreshing to have a panto that is so completely willing to fire on all cylinders - much like some of the later moments, particular during the 3D sequence, being quite intense and potentially frightening for very young audiences. None of this is a bad thing though, and Jack perfectly demonstrates that panto doesn’t need to be watered down or condescending. Give me 3D spiders leaping out from a screen, loud explosions, towering giants and the odd joke about the size of a man’s ‘curly wurly’ over tired endless-knicker gags any day. The audience, quite evidently, felt likewise.
Gary Wilmot, resuming Dame duty, gets credit for lending a gentle sweetness and nice to his Mrs Trott, mother of Simon, Billy and Jack. Wilmot is surprisingly sincere and endearing as the well-meaning farm owner and maternal figure, which is fortunate, as it’s difficult to shake the impression that had Wilmot camped the role up to extremities alongside Slack and Zerdin’s work, the whole thing would have been overkill. Instead, a delightful musical number of Mrs Trott introducing us to her menagerie of farm animals is accessible, family-friendly fun, and of course, here in panto land, culminates in a stage full of cows, pigs and other barnyard critters moonwalking to Michael Jackson. Later on, Wilmot inherits the old reliable ‘story told through the names of chocolate bars’ routine, which, whilst familiar, he nevertheless pulls off at pace and without fumble.
There is a whole host of fantastic set pieces and stand-out moments worthy of praise in Jack and the Beanstalk, many of which would be the isolated highlight in a lesser production. But here, the surprises and spectacle keep on coming. The show, like it’s namesake, is a grower (do with that what you will…), and each scene of exuberance and hilarity is instantly outdone by what follows. From an inspiredly bonkers re-imaging of the 12 Days of Christmas, to a brilliant Miss Saigon homage which quite literally soars out into the audience (answers on a postcard) and even a towering, animatronic giant, the sheer ambition and invention on display is difficult to imagine being surpassed in the panto world.
The Hippodrome pantomime is regularly touted as the biggest in the UK. Whilst, statistically speaking, this is supported and validated by record-breaking sales and attendance figures, it is the calibre of production that truly earns the plaudit - the sheer scale and splendidness of what QDOS productions bring to the stage each year, and Jack and the Beanstalk is undoubtedly no exception. In fact, it is by some measure the most all-round dazzling, entertaining slice of panto goodness in many years. With a dream cast, a terrifically judged bricolage of comedy and set pieces that appeal to all without feeling filtered or dumbed down, and production values most other pantos would dream of, Jack and the Beanstalk is an absolute must-see for all panto enthusiasts, and the one-stop ticket for all-round family entertainment and side-splitting fun in the Midlands this Christmas and New Year.
(A)MUSINGS RATING - * * * * * (5 out of 5 Stars)
+ Dream panto cast across-the-board
+ McDonald, James and Mellor's musical numbers
+ Matt Slack is a thing of pure comedy genius
+ Huge levels of audience interaction
+ Technically and artistically dazzling
+ The greatest panto in all the land!
- May be a little too intense for the very young in places
JACK AND THE BEANSTALK is running at the Birmingham Hippodrome from Friday 19 December to Sunday 1 February 2015.
Alternatively, call Ticket Sales directly on 0844 338 5000 now to book your tickets!
Press tickets for this performance of Jack and the Beanstalk were provided courtesy of the Birmingham Hippodrome directly. (A)musings Media gratefully acknowledges their generous invitation.