Writers: Michael Harrison and Alan McHugh
Director: Michael Harrison
Reviewer: James Garrington
When you regularly announce yourself as “Britain’s Biggest Pantomime”, you are setting expectations that many producers would find hard to live up to in reality. When the producer that makes this bold claim is Qdos, and the venue is the Hippodrome, then actually it’s a pretty safe bet that they are right. This year’s offering is Jack and the Beanstalk and sees the return of the comedy trio of Gary Wilmot, Matt Slack and Paul Zerdin, following their well-received performances in last year’s Snow White. There is inevitably, then, a high level of expectation that this will be another Hippodrome panto to remember, surpassing, if possible, last year’s; and Jack and the Beanstalk almost lives up to expectations.
This is, beyond doubt, a very good panto. In typical Qdos/Hippodrome style it is a big budget affair, with spectacular sets and colourful costumes, complete with some very impressive special effects. It engages the audience right from the start, with some full-on music and dancing, and launches straight into the comedy, introducing us to the main characters. From then on, it is pretty non-stop right up to the end. The pairing of Paul Zerdin (Simple Simon) and Matt Slack (Silly Billy) is inspired, and they feed off each other particularly well. Slack is a consummate and very experienced panto performer, and works the audience extremely well with more than a hint of Brian Conley in his mannerisms and delivery. Zerdin, as well as being a fine comedian, is also an extremely skilled ventriloquist with a modern slant on his art. Of course he uses the dummy – but he also works extremely well without it, using instead members of the audience (in this case a child, who seemed totally unfazed by the experience). In fact so skilled are the pair that even a seasoned performer like Gary Wilmot (Dame Trot) has his work cut out to compete in the comedy stakes. Their version of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” will be memorable for a number of reasons and had the audience almost in tears with laughter.
Jane McDonald demonstrates a fine voice as The Enchantress, the ‘Good Fairy’ rôle, joining in with the comedy in a number of places too, and showing that she can generate as much laughter as the professional comedians on the stage. Also in fine voice is Duncan James as Jack, our hero, though as is often the case he is almost relegated to a secondary rôle in a show that is more about comedy than plot. Joining him as his love interest, Princess Apricot, is Robyn Mellor. Completing the cast is Chris Gascoyne, who gives a slightly understated performance as the villain, Fleshcreep.
Panto is a form of entertainment that appeals to a wide range of people and it is nice to see that the theatre and production company are ‘doing their bit’ to make it as accessible as possible. In common with a number of venues, the Hippodrome is putting on a specially adapted relaxed performance on 29th January in the afternoon, aimed particularly at people on the autistic spectrum, alongside the usual captioned, signed and audio described performances. Of course, it also has to appeal to adults and children alike too, and Jack and the Beanstalk does not disappoint in that regard. Great care has been taken with a lot of the comedy, so that it works in different levels for different sections of the audience.
The scenery designed by Ian Westbrook is big, bold and colourful as always with a Hippodrome panto, and is complemented beautifully by the lighting (Ben Cracknell). The third part of the design triangle here are the effects (The TwinsFX and Whizzbang3D Productions), and together these three combine to provide two hours of sheer spectacle, with the now traditional flying sequence (this time a helicopter), a growing beanstalk and some animatronics.
The real climax of the story is the scene in the giant’s castle, where there are some extremely good 3D effects to add to the mix. Having built the story up to that point, though, the ending back at the bottom of the beanstalk feels a little bit tame by comparison, and the show doesn’t quite end with the big finish that it might have. Not that the show is lacking in spectacle; far from it. The Hippodrome panto has, for many years, striven for the ‘wow factor’ and they have found it once again this year, in terms of sheer spectacle. It’s just that sometimes it feels a little as though some of the traditional panto features have been toned down to make way for the big effects. However, it does have an excellent cast, and provides a very good evening’s entertainment. A little more care with the script at the end would have made it superb. If you’re looking for a show full of great comedy and huge spectacle, look no further than the Hippodrome.
Photo: Keith Pattison | Runs until 1st February 2015