Writer: Nick Lane
Music/Lyrics: Simon Slater
Director: Gemma Fairlie
For the past few years the Stephen Joseph Theatre has turned to Nick Lane’s wonderfully eccentric adaptations of classics (A Christmas Carol, Treasure Island and suchlike) for its Christmas shows. With Jack and the Beanstalk the suspicion was that the theatre had finally tilted over into pantomime. Not so: this remains a children’s Christmas play. Though it has many of the best-loved features of pantomime, notably an irresistible silliness and uninhibited audience participation, you’ll look in vain for a Dame decked out like a galleon in full sail or for most of the familiar routines – the odd one sneaks in!
Remarkably much of the audience reaction (such as the first burst of “Oh no, you’re not!”) comes unbidden and unrehearsed, such is the instant appeal; maybe the presence of several very talented young actors helps the audience identify with the characters.
Instead of the more stately exposition common in pantomime, things start with a bang, the hapless youth Jack running and rolling onstage, desperately trying to evade an over-amplified Giant. Gaining a momentary respite (which actually lasts at least an hour and a half, but who’s counting?), he tells how this all came about.
Jack is something of a misfit in school, bullied by the odious Danny King, the Head’s son who is seen as perfect by Jack’s mum and the other parents. Taking his cow/bike to market, Jack is conned/forced by Danny into exchanging it for a magic bean. When the bean grows up to the heavens, as they do, old Mrs. Pecksniff, a neighbour, explains about the giants at the top of the beanstalk: they are going to destroy Scarborough, so Jack must destroy them first. By the time Jack has climbed the beanstalk (several times) and teamed up with an unexpected new girl at school, Jill, he has learned to see giants differently and his mission changes. He also encounters a giant chicken that’s trying to reinvent itself as a Spanish grandee!
Jacob Butler’s wide-eyed Jack has instant audience appeal and brings a bumbling determination and unbounded energy to the proceedings. Jessica Dennis, oddly normal as his Mum, doubles brilliantly as Danny’s sidekick John, the soul of aggressive passivity and irredeemably stupid. Loris Scarpa captures perfectly the two sides of Danny, his goody-goody behaviour in front of adults as nauseating as it is funny. Danny in the end proves the equivalent as a panto villain, booed heartily as he flings his insults at the audience. Sheri Lineham’s ever-smiling and charmingly mysterious Jill is a delight and Alicia Mckenzie bears the brunt of Nick Lane’s wayward imagination in a triple whammy of dotty neighbour Mrs. Pecksniff, expert in giantology, Janet the flamenco hen and the decorously patronising Head teacher, Mrs. King.
As usual, Nick Lane’s script is backed up by songs from Simon Slater, nicely integrated into the plot and with such memorable moments as Jack channelling his inner Frank Sinatra to explain to the assembled hacks (i.e. the rest of the cast) that they’ve got it all wrong about giants. Gemma Fairlie’s direction matches the imagination of the script and is aided by Helen Coyston’s designs: plenty of room to have fun in and a super slide to whizz down.
It’s all great fun, but not without its serious message. The relationship between Jack and Danny, while comically exaggerated, reflects reality. Most important of all is the never-stated implicit theme of tolerance: those embedded views of the evil of giants, born out of ignorance, have more than enough equivalents in 21st century Britain.
Runs until December 31st 2021