Writer: Dave Carey
Directors: Robin Shillinglaw, Cara McInanny, Michael Bossisse and Bethany Hamlin
The Chickenshed Theatre must be admired for sheer scale of ambition with Jack! its heart-warming festive take on panto favourite Jack and The Beanstalk. The show has around 800 child and young adult actors and musicians (plus a few assorted adults) in the cast, performing on four rotas with four different directors.
Alternating actors take the principal roles (Hector Dogliani great as Jack in full-on, angst-ridden teenager mode at the press night) and the whole show has sign language integrated into every performance. The magnitude of the enterprise requires quite some co-ordination. Does it work? The storyline can be confusing and there are understandable technical hiccups with sound, transitions, and the logistics of moving so many cast members about. But the show’s momentum (midway between manic and frantic) never palls, and so infectious is the pure, inclusive, joy of the thing one cannot help but be carried along in its glorious wake.
Trapped in a depressed seaside town with widowed Mum (Lauren Cambridge) and a troublesome, permanently farting sibling (who for reasons that become apparent later in the show does not have a name), Jack’s sole pleasure in life comes from video games. Bullied and unsuccessful at school and with the family reliant on food banks to survive, our hero gets an unexpected offer from one of his dad’s erstwhile colleagues.
He can make things better for the family by swapping his old console for three lives in an immersive game called The Beanstalk. Relying on courage, wits, his sibling, some helpful tech support, and various avatars, Jack must complete the game’s four levels. He thinks his quest is to confront the evil Giant (Jonny Morton), but what he really needs is to deal with unresolved feelings a lot closer to home. Amongst other things his challenge it to survive roving monsters, a fierce dance-off, a crazy pinball competition, and a tv quiz show.
At one point Jack says, “it is all getting very Luke Skywalker here”. Aside from being some nifty foreshadowing of one of the show’s main themes, the reference to late ‘70s Star Wars movies sets the scene for the design feel. Andrew Caddies’ set and lighting is all checkboard, zigzags, glitter balls, coloured pixels, and a back projection spewing computer code. It captures the feel of early arcade games brilliantly The ’70s vibe extends into Emma Gale’s delightful costume design, with more glitter and sequins than a glam rock convention, and even a reference to that decade’s Dr Who. Carey’s original songs pick up on the same era. The spooky Children of Monsters sung by a throng of teenage zombies has the distinct feel of Michael Jackson’s Thriller, and Pinball Wizard will be mightily familiar to anyone who has ever heard Elton John’s period song of the same title.
Jack’s journey sees him learning suitably positive life lessons about standing up to bullies and seeing people for their potential rather than their disabilities. These themes chime neatly with the Chickenshed’s admirable mission to create truly inclusive theatre spaces, visibly represented on stage. But more than anything, what makes Jack! so entertaining to watch is the feeling that the performers are having such fun. This show is a reminder of the sheer joy that theatre can bring to performer and audience alike.
Runs until 7 January 2023