My first two outings into Pantoland had been less than traditional so I thought I’d see what was on offer with something a bit more familiar to the genre. Although Jack And The Beanstalk is recognisably traditional in most senses, this being 2020 and a year when anything could and did happen, it still contains an unusual twist hinted at in the show’s subtitle – The Garden Panto. For this is an alfresco version filmed in what looks like glorious summer sunshine and with the garden in question being in full bloom. Given that it’s all about the central botanical wonder plant it’s probably the most appropriate choice of title for outdoors and as a reinterpretation of the real in theatre experience it’s hard to see it being bettered this year.
The whole enterprise has been masterminded by Peter (“Here’s one I made earlier”) Duncan who appeared on our TV screens as a memorable Blue Peter presenter but, these days, is one of the country’s leading experts on British pantomime. Not only did he come up with the idea in the first place, but he also wrote the script and song lyrics, designed, sorted out the cast and co-directed (“Oh no he didn’t”….”Oh yes he did). His impressive back garden is used as the location for the “sets” providing the squire’s house, a shed for Dame Trott’s cottage, a fig tree under which Jack and Jill can meet and camouflage for the villain’s nefarious doings. A Victorian folly doubles as Blunderbore’s castle in the air. Oh, and I nearly forgot, Duncan also stars as Dame Trott in a series of ever more ludicrous outfits and he makes a thoroughly good job of that as well.
It’s not a one man show, however, and Duncan has assembled a great core team along with dozens of extras some of whom I believe are friends and family (the two ends of the pantomime cow are, apparently, Duncan’s relatives). Jack himself is played with winning charm by Sam Ebenezer and Jill by Sarah Moss; both have great singing voices, although I was slightly surprised that the heroine can still be presented as a damsel in distress in this day and age. Ian Talbot gives an appropriately gammony turn as Squire Shortshanks and gamely enters into some traditional slapstick during a very silly song – he also co-directs the show. The essential struggle between good and bad is represented by the verse speaking flower fairy of Nicola Blackman and the hiss worthy villainy of Jos Vantyler as Giant Blunderbore’s sidekick Fleshcreepy. He pops up in a variety of guises luring the unsuspecting villagers into the ogre’s clutches and though the latter is present in voice only at first, he does make a memorable appearance in the second half.
The garden locations are put to very good use and make Jack’s climb up the beanstalk quite realistic. This is carried out to a song advocating tolerance and respect for others – very much a 2020 trope. The outdoor setting also means that some timely messages about climate change and environmental sustainability can be inserted but overall the show doesn’t get too preachy and retains its sense of fun giving us the inevitable topical COVID-19 gags about social distancing, face masks and a lack of toilet paper. There’s also a plethora of more traditional groan inducing puns (“He took a ruler to bed with him so he could see how long he slept”), plenty of slapstick, a routine with the pantomime cow, a sing along and there is an inventive sequence midway through in which (in an homage to the Pixar film Up), the dame flies over London held aloft by a string of helium filled balloons. We are, of course, encouraged to do the whole call and response thing (“He’s behind you” etc.) and to cheer the heroes and boo the villains. I guess it will be up to individual households as to whether they join in or not but of course you need to if you really want the full experience.
This is panto for the (almost) purists and if your local venue isn’t able to provide the necessary this year, this is almost certainly the next best thing. That it has been done with evident love and care is a bonus and a testimony to Duncan and his team’s determination to rescue this aspect of our festive season from ignominious oblivion. Quite apart from that it must have been a welcome shot in the arm to the many performers and creatives (largely self-employed) who found that their skills and talents could be put to good use; not to mention the half dozen charities that are going to benefit as a result. This one absolutely deserves your support – oh, yes it does!
Jack And The Beanstalk – The Garden Panto is available via its own website – click here. It is also due to be screened at Everyman and Showcase cinemas across the country, as and when COVID-19 rules permit
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