Writer: Will Brenton
Directors: Clive Rowe and Tony Whittle
Jack and the Beanstalk is this year’s custom-made pantomime for the glorious Hackney Empire, currently celebrating its 120th birthday. It’s a perfect example of the genre. With its primary colours, reliable story-telling, special effects, slapstick and well-executed call-and-response routines, it’s slick and lively family entertainment.
We’re in Hackney-on-the-Verge, a benighted village, which, unlike its smug neighbour, Shoreditch, is under the cosh of the Giant and his wicked enforcer, Funella Fleshcreep. Jack Trot loves Jill Higginbottom, played with bright energy by Rochelle Sherona and Ellie Ruiz Rodriguez respectively. Kat B is scene-stealing as Simple Simon, engagingly daft but well-meaning. And then there is the Dame – here Dame Trot, owner of the village dairy. Clive Rowe is dependably fabulous in the role, bursting with energy and innocent mischief. Innuendo is dialled right down, with only the occasional reference to the Dame’s drawers and her comical pursuit of men. She is kitted out in a serious of fantastic costumes, from a voluminous frock made of assorted bags-for-life (signalling the time’s austerity), to a living embodiment of a Welsh dresser. Rowe and Tony Whittle, playing Councillor Higginbottom, supply additional material to Will Brenton’s lively script. Whittle does a lovely turn as a plump Freddie Mercury impersonator whose use of snippets of Queen lyrics brings in a burst of music from the band.
Another star turn is Daisy the cow, touchingly wide-eyed and pink-uddered. Her milk goes dry, so she’s quickly rebranded as a rare breed vegan and sent off to be sold at Shoreditch’s hipster market. It’s not entirely clear why the good Fairy Fuschia (the beautiful-voiced Julie Jupp) needs to pose as an elderly crone, offering to buy Daisy for a handful of magic beans. Wouldn’t the exchange have been more suspenseful if offered by evil Fleshcreep (Zoe Curlett)? But that’s all forgotten when the beanstalk emerges and Jack clambers effortlessly up to Cloud Land.
In the Giant’s imposing castle a bunch of cockroaches perform an appealing combo of tap and hip-hop. The Giant himself (Leon Sweeney) is a magnicent creation, vast but unthreatening, more outsize cuddly toy than menacing nightmare figure. Needless to say, when we return to the village, all works out well for everyone else.
A stand-out sequence is the droll version of The Twelves Days of Christmas. The action becomes increasingly hilarious as the poor figure of Five Golden Pies is repeatedly pelted with his custardy offerings.
The band, led by Mark Dickman, gives vibrant performances of old standards and Steven Edis’s original music. A nice touch is to give Harp a version of Schubert’s An die Musik. The only issue, however, is the sound balance. For many of the songs, particular those performed by the ensemble, the musicians completely drown the lyrics. This really needs to be addressed.
But bar this, it’s a fun-filled evening for all the family.
Runs until 2 January 2022