Writer: Andrew Pollard
Director: Joyce Branagh
Musical Director: Rebekah Hughes
Choreographer: Rachel Gee
Designer: Mark Walters
Reviewer: Ron Simpson
The Lawrence Batley Theatre’s Jack and the Beanstalk is billed as “a traditional family pantomime” which is fair enough. Audiences in the middle-sized theatres in this area – Wakefield, Harrogate, Huddersfield, etc. – know that they are in safe hands come Christmas time, with a highly successful formula based on six or seven talented and energetic principals, a three-piece pit band, a cheerfully well-drilled young chorus, spectacular (and sometimes bizarre) designs and some tried and trusted routines.
However, it only works if there is enough invention to go with the tradition and enough freshness to stop it becoming formulaic – and invention and freshness abound at the Lawrence Batley this year. Andrew Pollard’s script has a strong story-line with plenty of original touches and a willingness to depart from tradition as required. There is no “It’s behind you” set-piece routine and, instead of a messy slop scene, we have an ingenious set of variations on three silly chaps, a pot of tea and a bouncy sofa. On the traditional front, Buttercup the cow manages her little dances very nicely and the Dame’s costume changes gets ever more frequent and absurd – even nonsensical, Dame Trott claiming they found one in the costume box, don’t know what it’s for, but have to use it.
Joyce Branagh’s production is particularly fast-moving, with strong performances all down the line. Thomas Cotran as Jack (it’s not quite traditional enough to have a female Principal Boy) may claim to be a bit of a dope, but both he and Megan Turner (Jill) have plenty of energy and personality. Heather Phoenix is a soothing presence as Fortuna, fortune-teller and provider of magic beans, less so as her party-loving twin, the Giant’s cook, Spatula. James McLean is not the scariest of villains but is deliciously camp and creepily nauseating (and very funny) as Nightshade, the Giant’s henchman. Declan Wilson has a faded dignity (very faded, he plays his own fanfares on a kazoo) as the unfortunate King Crackpot.
As Dame Dorothy Trott Robin Simpson falls into the aggressive, bustling school of dames, with no hint of pseudo-glamour. He forms an instant rapport with the audience and sails through ancient gags with no hint of embarrassment, even adding a few new ones for fun. And then there is Alisha Simone who bolsters the dancing and twinkles happily as Lucy and, according to the programme, plays the Giant and the cow – surely with some help!
Designer Mark Walters is billed as “at Glitter Productions” and it shows. Designs are as bright and shiny as anyone could wish for – and, when needed, as daft and silly. Musically the pantomime is first-class. Songs used and misused cover a wider range than usual, there are plenty of good voices in the cast and Rebekah Hughes gets a surprising variety of sound and style out of her three-piece band, with little touches of musical wit such as the H.M.S. Pinafore fragment (“I’m called Little Buttercup”) at every mention of the cow’s name.
Runs until 6 January 2018 | Image: Andrew Billington