A giant pantomime spectacular is exactly what’s needed to bring in some festive cheer and offer laughter for all the family. That’s exactly what ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’ delivers. Headlined by ‘Strictly Come Dancing’s professional dancer-turned-judge Anton Du Beke, the show is a riotous collation of silly songs, painful puns and colourful costumes. It’s all set to live music and has an extra-special 3D giant thrown in for good measure.
Following the traditional fairytale story, Jack Trot (Anton Du Beke), his girlfriend Princess Jill (Rhiane Drummond), brother Silly Simon (Lloyd Hollett) and mother Dame Trot (Darren Machin) fall upon hard times and have to sell their beloved animals at the market fair, including prize-winning cow Daisy (“Aaaaaaaaaah!”). When Jack is swindled by the machinations of the evil Mrs Blunderbore (Rachel Izen), he has only a handful of beans to show for it. But when a magic beanstalk grows outside their house, it provides a route up to Cloudland where our heroes can rescue the kidnapped Princess and face the terrible giant.
In keeping with time-honoured pantomimic tradition, the plot matters not one jot, and the production is really a showcase of highly entertaining set-pieces that play to the performers’ strengths. With the considerable talent on offer, there’s plenty to dazzle the audience. Whilst this is only Anton Du Beke’s second pantomime season, he’s already found his feet, especially in the dance routines he performs with quick steps and his trademark beaming smile. Where his singing and conviction on the lines is sometimes wanting, Du Beke more than makes up for it with an innocent, likeable personality and a mixture of quick wit and good grace when things go wrong. Having said that, pantomime is the medium where wobbles are forgiven, and most trained actors would struggle to deliver some of the devilishly difficult tongue-twisters in this script.
Although Du Beke will draw in the crowds and put bums on seats, it’s Lloyd Hollett as his brother Silly Simon who steals the show. He’s the one tasked with interacting with the audience by providing adults with innuendo whilst keeping the children’s attention on what’s happening on the stage. That takes consummate skill, and Hollett meets this requirement and then some. Outrageously funny is the best way to describe him, with a verbal dexterity that is truly breathtaking in parts. His rapid delivery of convoluted songs, throwing jokes and impressions into the mix (including – and this made my night – Leonard Rossiter as Rigsby), Hollett is a tornado of energy and infectious humour. It’s worth seeing the show for Hollett alone. His banter with the kids who came onto the stage to sing the final song nearly brought the house down.
The other main performances are good: Rachel Izen provides boo-hiss villainy and a great range of withering facial expressions, whilst Rachel Spry’s earnestness as the fairy Mother Nature is a satisfying foil. Other aspects of the production also impress: the costumes are sensational and bright, especially those worn by Darren Machin as Dame Trot, whose creations become increasingly outlandish as the story progresses. A live band playing some well-loved rock songs (including Queen’s ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’) adds immeasurably to the thrill of live theatre. The ingenious 3D component becomes clear in the second act. Without too many spoilers, the packed auditorium filling with a crescendo of children screaming in part terror and part delight was a joy to behold. It’s those moments and Silly Simon’s jokes and fart gags that the kids will tell their friends and relatives about afterwards.
On the downsides, the production is still bedding in, but the cast is strong enough to reach an effortless rapport with one another once it has been tried out on just a few more live audiences. Rough edges are always forgiven in pantomime, but there were a couple of moments in the first act where the energy dropped and they should be ironed out. A few actors were a little off the pace and a touch slow on their cues, especially before the interval. The second act was stronger, except for when the curtain call took the audience by surprise as they were expecting a wedding scene. Our biggest regret is that the charming Rhiane Drummond is underused as Princess Jill, and deserves to have had a greater share of the action. All of this is more than made up for by a feel-good production that will tickle everyone’s funny bone. There are very few forms of entertainment remaining that are still willing to send itself up and gently mock wokery, so thank goodness for pantomime extending that invitation to laugh at life’s absurdities.
A few times in recent years we have left the panto with aching ribs, wiping away tears of laughter. This one isn’t quite up there with the very best of vintages, but it is nonetheless a solid and reliable table wine: big-hearted, deliciously funny and thoroughly entertaining. We laughed all the way through, and the young kids in the audience absolutely loved it. In the final analysis, their judgement is all that matters. If you’re craving more than mince pies and tinsel to get you in the Christmas spirit, catch ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’ at the Churchill Theatre before it closes on New Year’s Eve.
Cast: Anton du Beke, Lloyd Hollett, Rhiane Drummond, Rachel Spry, Rachel Izen, Darren Machin Director: Andrew Ryan Writer: Alan McHugh Theatre: The Churchill, Bromley Running time: 120 mins Performance dates: 4th to 31st December 2022 Buy tickets for ‘Jack and the Beanstalk‘