There’s a scene in the Broadway musical Ragtime where one character, after a sharp intake of breath, says to another: “Well”. The woman says it so often the man with whom she is conversing with is compelled to point it out. She says it, or so she claims, when she can’t immediately think of anything else to say. Such was my initial response to the 2017 VPA Productions pantomime, Jack and the Beanstalk. Well.
But a post-show meal at the Pizza Express in Gerrards Cross town centre, followed by a train journey back into London, provided sufficient time for further reflection. It certainly has all the ingredients of pantomime, and does better than this year’s glitz and glamour panto at the Palladium at calls and responses. Proceedings did, perhaps, get rather more anarchic than was intended, but either despite or because of the chaos (or maybe it was a bit of both), it’s got plenty of heart.
A baddie is doing well as a baddie when he elicits boos from the younger members of the audience unprompted. Christopher Howland’s Fleshcreep is a paradoxical success in being good at being bad. The whole cast shines, really, and this extends to an ensemble of child performers, who show much promise. There were technical hiccups which precluded us from hearing every line, but the audience willed them on anyway, and thankfully they didn’t seem too fazed by the, ahem, challenges of live performance.
Jamie Stewart’s Silly Billy was so endearing I still find it difficult to picture him as the baddie that he was in previous VPA pantos (this being my first one, y’see). Most vocally impressive were Rebecca Gilliland as Princess Jill, and Harry Jones in the title role, the former reprising a number from Michael Webborn and Daniel Finn’s musical The Clockmaker’s Daughter, and the latter knocking out a polished rendering of ‘Giants in the Sky’ from Stephen Sondheim’s Into The Woods. Elsewhere, a number of chart music songs were convincingly woven into the narrative, and kept the cosmopolitan audience entertained – and even I recognised a version of Bruno Mars’ ‘Just The Way You Are’.
More might have been made of Nigel Garton’s character name, King Willie (Elaine Paige ‘chasing after Dick’ – as in Dick Whittington, the 2017 panto over at the London Palladium, being a case in point). The dialogue is kept distinctly family-friendly (absolutely, positively no uncomfortable in-seat shifting from mums and dads here). And Garton’s King is delightful, even if I couldn’t quite shift Michael Jibson’s King George III in Hamilton out of my line of thinking.
It’s a faithful, traditional version of Jack and the Beanstalk, with no plot surprises to report. As I say, it was all there: the ‘parish notices’, the children brought on stage, the invitation to the audience to join in a well-known chorus, the wedding finale. Dame Trott (Ian Parkin) makes scene entrances with increasingly outlandish costumes as the show progresses, and some projections prove useful in helping to establish a scene’s location. The on-stage beanstalk, due to something somewhere not working as it should, was unceremoniously bundled off-stage in a manner that threatened to redefine the meaning of ‘inconspicuous’ (Who cares? It’s panto!), but this is more than made up for in the fun and amusement to be had watching a cast clearly enjoying themselves and making the most of this boisterous seasonal experience.
London lad, loving life and all that it has to offer.