A couple of days ago I was reviewing the immersive theatre event Dr Who: Time Fracture and reflecting on the franchise’s beginnings on Saturday teatime TV in the early 1960s. In a similar slot on Fridays the essential viewing was always Crackerjack (CRACKERJACK!). Essentially this was a variety show for children which always ended with a short comic play into which was incorporated current hit songs. I don’t know whether the New Wolsey Theatre in Ipswich had this particular blast from the past in mind when constructing their annual Christmas panto but it seemed, to me at least, to be the spiritual heir. However, I have to say that they do a much better job of it than that BBC team ever managed where the often middle aged performers always seemed to be slightly embarrassed by what they were being asked to do.
This year’s choice is Jack And The Beanstalk: The Rock ‘n’ Roll Panto which takes the traditional tale and adds some classic rock into the mix; this ensures it manages the delicate balancing act of being highly traditional but, at the same time, that it comes up fresh. It’s a formula that worked well for last year’s Snow Queen and, if anything, under Peter Rowe’s direction, is even more satisfying here. For one thing there’s a rather fuller audience and this was live streamed rather than it being a recording. Indeed, the New Wolsey is livestreaming every single performance which certainly helps to make those at home feel included in the fun. In a neat twist there are some pre-filmed inserts captured in woods and fields in Suffolk and in front of a green screen which means that some natty special effects can be deployed. I particularly enjoyed Jack and pantomime cow Bessie’s journey to market via the local bus (top tip – make sure you catch the destination signage on the vehicle’s front and on the local gallery).
The inserts also give the extremely hard working cast a brief break or space for a costume change because otherwise the eight strong team are all onstage the whole time. Not only do they play a key character (sometimes two), but they are also the backing band playing an instrument (sometimes two) to keep things rocking along. Returning from last year is Steve Simmonds Dame who is a master (mistress?) of both the single and double entendre and holds the audience in the palm of his hand throughout; he was clearly having a ball yesterday and will no doubt continue to do so though I guess he’s going to have to exercise extreme caution with the “Pheasant Plucker” routine. James Haggie also returns as Billy Nomates – think the love child of Frank Spencer and Joe Pasquale – doing his village idiot routine. In a modern reversal of tradition, it he is that is carried off to the Giant’s castle which allows the usual damsel in distress Jill (Daniella Piper) to lead the rescue party. Belying his dim character, it turns out that Haggie is an extremely competent guitarist and actually has a wonderful singing voice. Neil Urquhart’s Jack is a likeable lead with bags of energy who can also belt out a song. In fact, all the cast give good value and although as Simmonds wryly observes that there aren’t any stars in this production, I for one would rather see this team than any number of second rate soap actors.
Pantomime is, of course, partly about spectacle (there’s plenty of glitter and glitz from Natasha Maggi’s Fairy Aubergine) and having ample scope for audience involvement and some top class booing (Nicola Bryant’s Fleshcreep). The Giant (Joe Butcher) also doesn’t disappoint being fully realised rather, than is often the case suggested, and entering to Queen’s “We Will Rock You”. The music generally will be highly familiar to adults though perhaps less so to the younger members of the audience. Anything with Jack in the title is pressed into service (“Jumping Jack Flash”, “Hit The Road Jack”) and there’s quite a preponderance of classic Motown; a surprising inclusion was one of James Brown’s most famous numbers. There’s plenty of genuine laugh out loud gags, puns and slapstick although by the second half the number of fart/poo gags was getting a bit wearing.
I thoroughly enjoyed my afternoon in Much Piddling In The Marsh and although it may be a trifle long for the very young I’d give this top marks for the pantomime season so far. It’s a bold move to be livestreaming every performance but what an opportunity to take a regional product nationwide and be really inclusive when so many are neglecting the opportunity. The New Wolsey have recognised that it’s not only onstage where there is a goose laying a golden egg.