Writer: Peter Duncan
Directors: Peter Duncan and Ian Talbot
Take a washing-up liquid bottle, some toilet roll tubes and a ton of sticky-backed plastic and what do you get? Ok, so Peter Duncan’s pantomime is not quite as homemade as that but there is a definite Blue Peter make-do ethic and ingenuity though his entire production of Jack and the Beanstalk filmed during the summer when most pantomimes were being cancelled. So, this new digital version, released in Everyman cinemas and online is here to save Christmas.
Stuck in a miserable lockdown, controlled by a bellowing giant, Jack and his mother Dame Trott face eviction when they are unable to pay their rent. Forced to sell their beloved cow Buttercup, Jack is tricked into exchanging her for magic beans. Soon realising his mistake and discovering the Squire’s daughter Jill has been kidnapped, Jack must save the day.
You’d like to believe that Duncan just happens to have a full pantomime cow, a series of elaborate Dame dresses and a plastic giant just laying around the house ready for an impromptu performance. And there is lots to like about this 85-minute film that takes all the classic pantomime traits – a fairy tale story, evil villains, magical plot devices, singing, dancing and the odd saucy joke aimed at the adults – and weaves a tale that will certainly fill the gap in areas where theatres remain closed.
Duncan uses his own house and garden to excellent effect, implying the dense woodland around Jack’s house with plenty of hidden pathways and abundant vegetation to hide amongst, while fairy people emerge from the greenery in leotards decorated with leaves in what is visually a panto meets A Midsummer Night’s Dream mash-up. If scenes are shot in the same location it is often difficult to tell, and with the back of the house doubling as the Squire’s mansion, Duncan and co-Director Ian Talbot create the feel of far more space than they probably have – even when they nip over the neighbour’s wall to find the Giant’s evil lair at the top of the beanstalk.
The story, written by Duncan, has all the usual elements with some Covid-related jokes to keep it contemporary as references to staying home and wearing masks sit alongside the wince-inducing comedy of exchanges such as “the world’s our oyster / that sounds a bit fishy.” But there is visual humour and colourful set pieces too, in the Dame’s changing dresses, the creation of banana milkshake with the help of Buttercup and plenty of physical pranks that will appeal to younger children.
A few ideas are too underdeveloped and never really materialise into substantial plot points, including a tangential climate change angle that begins with protestors and placards but evaporates quickly. Likewise, the story’s original frame is the Duncan family receiving a pop-up book of Jack and the Beanstalk from Amazon which is all but forgotten later on. It is a shame, too, that in a modern pantomime Jill remains a pathetic two-dimensional girl who is quickly abducted and has to be rescued – even then you’re never really sure whether Jack is there for her or to get his cow back. It would be nice to see a slightly more rounded and self-sufficient female character if she is going to be in the story at all.
Duncan excels as Dame Trott of course, guiding the tale with his experienced eye for panto exuberance while Sam Ebenezer has fun as the not-so-clever but brave Jack on the cusp of change. Standout performances from Nicola Blackman as the charming Garden Fairy who narrates in verse, riveting the various sections together, and from Jos Vantyler as Fleshcreepy who makes a fine villainous henchman to boo at.
For a low budget production, Duncan and co have thrown everything they can into this, not least their full energies and all of that comes across on screen. And given the restrictions when filming, Jack and the Beanstalk has been put together with care and a genuine love of the genre, hoping to make Christmas a little cheerier for all who see it.
Available here until 10 January or at selected cinemas