Review by Daz Gale
All over the country, theatres are being taken over by Dames, cries of “HE’S BEHIND YOU”, random celebrities and whichever way contemporary songs can be shoehorned in to a plot (‘Padam Padam, I’m looking at you). Yes, panto season is truly upon us. Oh yes it is. One of the most anticipated of the season is this year’s offering from Birmingham Hippodrome. Known for their high quality at the best of times, their inclusion of a certain loveable TV presenter made this one I knew I couldn’t afford to miss – so fittingly, I picked this to be my final reviewing trip of the year. But would Jack and the Beanstalk be full of beans?
As pantomimes go, Michael Harrison productions have a bit of a reputation behind them. Their quality and production value means that any panto they produce is bound to be of a certain standard, with them responsible for multiple pantomimes all over the UK as well as the legendary London Palladium production. If this year’s Hippodrome panto looks familiar, it is because it is essentially the same as the one that graced the Palladium last year. While elements have been changed to reflect the differing cast, the essential “story” (I use that term lightly – this is a panto after all) remains the same, with that gloriously impressive stage and THAT special end of act one reveal all present. As someone who visits the Palladium panto every year, last year’s production was their best yet, and this iteration is every bit as magical.
With Mark Walters fabulous and extravagant set design combined with Duncan McLean’s video and Ben Cracknell’s lighting design creates a spectacular visual which provides the perfect backdrop for all of the madness that is about to follow. Michael Harrison directs a series of scenes which plays the wonderfully varied cast to their strengths and, unbelievably, actually allows for more of a narrative plot than you might usually expect from a panto. Though admittedly going to a panto for the plot is like going to McDonalds for the salad, it is still refreshing to see and boasts some truly magnificent set pieces – if you’ve ever wanted to sell a young actor scale the height of the building and disappear above your head, this is the show for you!
Each regional panto has their own regular stars who become heroes in their hometown and Birmingham Hippodrome is no exception. Doreen Tipton is a local legend with her pantomime performances the stuff of legend. This year, she takes on the role of Doreen Trot – a lazy cow, which she describes as the role she was born to play. With impeccable comic timing and a brilliant dry wit, she is always a joy to watch, particular in her big musical number where she takes on a bit of Les Miserables in ‘I Creamed A Cream’ which really was moosic to my ears. Andrew Ryan is equally delightful as the ever reliable and always fabulous Dame Trot with no shortage of innuendo and a whole load of cheek, not to mention a great singing voice.
Speaking of hometown heroes, the headlines this year were full of This Morning and Bake Off presenter Alison Hammond coming home to appear in her first Birmingham panto as the Spirit of the Beans. While she may not be getting a record deal with her singing anytime soon, she does what she does best, letting her huge personality fill the stage and shine like the star she is. It’s hard not to light up whenever Alison is on stage, such is the aura that surrounds her. A Strictly inspired segment seeing her and Matt Slack give us their best Dirty Dancing was among the most joyful moments of the consistently incredible show, though Alison Hammond is gold just being herself with no bells or whistles required. Though she is obviously following a script, it comes across effortless and natural with her own distinctive voice (and of course a “Bab” thrown in for good measure). I am now starting the campaign for her to appear as Jenny in a forthcoming production of 2.22.
Alison isn’t the only star name attached to this panto, with Samantha Womack taking on the role as Mrs Blunderbore. While she may not play up to the villainous nature of her character as much as others, she still demonstrates her fabulous talents with a musical performance of a Steps song – perhaps not the most obvious choice but any excuse for a bit of Steps and I’m up for it. Local actor Alexanda O’Reilly is full of enthusiasm and charisma in his star turn as Jack, more than holding his own against his more established co-stars and proving himself to be one to watch in the future, while Billie-Kay gives a sweet performance as the criminally underused Jill.
While Alison Hammond may have been the name that got people excited about Jack and the Beanstalk, this star vehicle belongs to one other cast member. Step forward, Matt Slack as Jake (not jack) Trot. Now in his tenth panto at Birmingham Hippodrome, it is clear to see why he keeps coming back (already confirmed for next year’s Peter Pan). With a chaotic nature that sees him break character and derail scenes, his interactions with fellow cast members and audience members showcase his remarkable talents. One of the single funniest performers I have ever watched on any stage show, not just a pantomime, Matt Slack is a truly sensational talent and one I hadn’t had the pleasure of witnessing before. An impressive A-Z of impressions is among the highlights Matt is involved with as was a fantastic musical number to ‘That’s Life’, though the sequence we will all remember is his climactic sequence involving four children from the audience. With one in particular on this evening giving Matt plenty of material (on the rare occasions he could get a word in), Matt proved how brilliant he is at ad-libbing and spontaneity as he riffed like the best of them. I may have gone this year to see Alison Hammond, I’ll be back next year to see Matt Slack.
Of course the usual pantomime tropes are on display, though not as commonly as some other pantos. You will get the odd opportunity to shout a classic panto catchphrase but refreshingly these aren’t overly relied on. A staple group performance with Alison, Samantha, Matt and Andrew is as brilliantly chaotic as you would hope while Matt Slack’s discussion of his dating life with Alexanda using only song lyrics was far filthier than you would expect, going over the heads of the small children but leaving me howling with laughter.
I had been told Birmingham Hippodrome’s pantomime was one of the best in the business. Even knowing it was using elements from last year’s unrivalled London Palladium production couldn’t set me up for the sheer brilliance of it. The scale of the show and the production value are matched by its big performances from its wonderful cast of big names and local heroes. While Alison Hammond is the name to get you in your seats, this is the Matt Slack show and for very good reason. I can’t think of a better show I could have seen to end my 2023 in reviews. Jack and the Beanstalk at Birmingham Hippodrome encapsulates not just the very best elements of pantomime but the very best of theatre as well. As standards go for the high quality of pantomimes, this one really is a giant.
Jack and the beanstalk plays at Birmingham Hippodrome until 28th January 2024. Tickets from www.birminghamhippodrome.com
This is our last planned review of the year at All That Dazzles. Look out for some end of year recaps, my favourite shows of the year and some 2024 previews on the website over the next two weeks with reviews resuming in the New Year.
Wishing everybody a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. See you in the theatre!