Saturday, 7 December 2013

Theatre review: Jack and the Beanstalk (Lyric Hammersmith)

There's a new creative team behind the scenes for the Lyric Hammersmith's pantomime this year, but for the fourth year running it's Stevie Webb's job to hold things together on stage. Tom Wells takes over writing duties and Dan Herd directs Jack and the Beanstalk, in which Hammersmith is terrorised by the giant Nostril and his henchman Mr Fleshcreep (Nigel Richards,) and only a girl called Jack (Rochelle Rose) and her green-fingered best friend Sprout (Webb) can save the day by climbing up a beanstalk into the sky. And along the way of course there's songs, audience participation, double-entendres for the grown-ups, topical references (Zumba, Miley Cyrus and Mumford & Sons are popular targets) and very, very bad jokes.

The Lyric has a Young Ensemble it recruits every year as a sort of work placement to bulk up the supporting cast, so Wells' script has been able to stick to just six actors in the main cast - and that includes Hannah Scarlett (herself a Young Ensemble alumna from last year) as the front end of the cow. So we get a chance for some nice character development, as far as the confines of pantomime allow.


And it's in those confines, I think, that the only real downsides of this year's show come up. There's a ton of traditional elements to be included in every panto, from the call-and-responses that have to be established early on and maintained throughout, to the audience song, the dame flirting with a man in the audience, the sweet-throwing and some of the watching kids getting their own moment on stage. And in his first stab at a panto script Wells feels a bit overwhelmed by trying to cram it all in, although for the most part he manages it in the end. The only complete flop of the evening is the "messy" scene, where the cast are meant to end up covered in gunge: Herd's staging fudges the scene of milking Caroline the cow, so it barely registers that the cast are supposed to be getting sprayed with milk.


The only other cast member with panto experience is Joshua Tonks as Fleshcreep's son, and Jack's love interest, Jill. A nice-but-dim public schoolboy, he's a cute and endearing addition, and his little romance with Rochelle Rose is nicely played. London Road's Howard Ward is making his debut as a panto dame and has a good stab at Moreen Drip (aka More, More, More. How d'you like it? How d'you like it?) although he's not quite got the brassiness down pat yet. Oh, hang on - I think I ate a couple of these at Gastronauts:


As ever though, this is really a showcase for Steven Webb, who remains unbeatable at holding this kind of silliness together, and really thrives on the inevitable hiccups of a show that not only relies so much on unpredictable audience participation, but also has such a relentless performance schedule that the cast's tiredness often shows through (the cast have an "easy" time of it this year: It doesn't look as if there's any three-show days planned, only one to two shows a day, seven days a week until January. Never mind the Zumba, I think actors lose more weight doing panto than anything else.) This is still a raucous and fun panto that really comes into its own in its second act (that includes an impressive giant's head, a pretty expensive-looking prop for something that only appears for a few seconds.) As usual I went with quite a large group, and all those who hadn't been to the Lyric before were thoroughly impressed. It was only those of use who had last year's Cinderella to compare it with that didn't think it quite came up to its standard.

Jack and the Beanstalk by Tom Wells is booking until the 4th of January at the Lyric Hammersmith.

Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes including interval.

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