Review by Sam Waite
For last year’s panto, Theatre Royal Stratford East was thrown far into the past, to the long-ago land of Stratford East-gypt. This time around, Anna Jordan’s Jack and the Beanstalk is set firmly in the modern day, with industrial action and capitalist greed informing its setting.
The town of Splatford’s main export is the magical mud dug up by Jack and his workmates, which can heal and rejuvenate those it covers. Once a great source of income for the townsfolk, Giant Belch now claims half of what they mine for his own Sky Kingdom aboveboard, while his imp lacked charge extortionate rents in local properties. Sent through the West Westfield (not the East Westfield) to the Shepherds Bush, Jack must exchange his believed Winnie The Moo for hens in the hope of his mother’s dairy becoming an egg emporium, but you know what happens next… (the thing with the beans, if you weren't sure)
Jordan’s script is packed with puns and gags, keeping the mostly young crowd enthralled with the shenanigans on stage. Where the stock characters of a pantomime can be limiting, she does manage to find some real grace and movement in some character arcs – though telegraphed from the outset, a baddie-turned-goodie “twist” is genuinely heartwarming, and Jack himself carries the story off with a plucky determination and ultimate want to do what's best for those around him. Jordan also leaves space for the audience to get involved, with the classic “he's behind you!” shouts and opportunities to engage with the characters.
Directed by Denzel Westley-Sanderson, the performances are broad enough to quickly establish personalities and relationships. The shorthand is helpful, allowing Westley-Sanderson to keep a constant and energetic pace with actors darting about the stage without any worry that the audience will lose track of who is who. Robert Hyman, a veteran of the Stratford East panto, provides original songs here, including a high energy opener and genuinely stirring moments for Jack’s mother and their “past retirement” cow, Winnie The Moo.
It may be Jack’s name in the title, but the true star of any good panto is its dame. This year the honour goes to Nathan Kiley as Jack’s dairy-owner mother, Milky Linda – Dame Linda Lactacious, if one wishes to be more formal about it. Kiley is an utter delight, swanning about the stage with all the subtlety of a particularly loud sledgehammer and milking (sorry) every single one of Linda’s lines. Snippy back and forths with chief-imp/debt collector Flesh Creep (a brash, commanding Lucy Frederick) are often hysterical, and a nice counterbalance to Kiley’s genuine moments of warmth with optimistic Jack.
Lily Arnold’s costumes bring a deliberate cartoonishness to the characters, matching the energy of the show's leading man. Nikhil Singh Rai dives into the title role (not the beanstalk, the other one) with visible gusto and a genuine sense of joy that translates into his interactions with the crowd. His kinship with Winnie (Savanna Jeffrey – magnetic if slightly underused) has real heart to it, and there's never moment where we doubt that Jack just wants to do his best to make everyone as happy as they can be.
Arnold extends the aesthetic to the set design, using bright colours and simple sets – admittedly, after the dynamic, exciting sets used in last year’s show, the vaguely presented Sky Kingdom was an anticlimax. Her strongest works revolve around Milky Linda, with her wardrobe and her place of work being magnificently detailed. The shop is bright and attractive, full of character and resembling a set for a particularly high-budget children’s TV show, while her gowns – fashioned from milk bottles and later from collected and upcycled rubbish – are striking in both their comedy and their construction.
A massive hit with the children in attendance, this Jack and the Beanstalk may break little in the way of new ground, but a visit to Splatford is still a lovely way to spend a December evening (or afternoon!) with some great company to share it with. Even when it doesn't quite climb to the staggering heights of some of the best pantomimes, there's still a lot of fun to be had by whole families, which sounds an awful lot like a success to me. Friendship wins the day for Jack and co, and I'm sure their adventures will win many days for the children of Stratford.
Jack and the Beanstalk plays at Theatre Royal Stratford East until January 6th
For tickets and information visit https://www.stratfordeast.com/whats-on/all-shows/jack-and-the-beanstalk-202324#Details_in
Photos by Mark Senior