Jack and the Beanstalk – Review – York Theatre Royal
By Roger Crow, December 2017
Rather aptly for a panto set in York, Berwick Kaler’s latest production is a shambles. Don’t get me wrong. It’s a beautiful mess. The set is a glorious tribute to the brilliant Mark Walters, who designed both it and the dazzling costumes, and the opening number, ‘Not Just For Kids Anymore’ (which made me laugh out loud) is tight, well choreographed and really gels. I just wish the rest of the show had as much coherence.
That’s the problem when a production is so front-loaded. Trying to top the intro is tricky.
Now to put this in context, Jack and the Beanstalk is far better than Kaler’s offering from 12 months ago. The whole thing clicks more effectively, and I’m guessing the key reason is Martin Barrass, Kaler’s long-term sidekick who generates so much love from generations who’ve been following these shows for years, it’s hard not to get swept along.
It’s been well documented that a 2016 accident left him in a right state, while Kaler’s own heart surgery understandably took the wind out of his own sails. Now both of them are back on some sort of form, their panto has its mojo back.
“Force of nature”
And it’s great to see Suzy Cooper back on stage doing her ditzy blonde singing and dancing routine as Jill. Her comic timing is superb, and I get the feeling in the 1970s, when mainstream sketch shows on TV were a thing, she’d have been a regular.
But oh that script. Kaler’s a force of nature who conjures up these shows with waves of heart and spirit, but structurally it’s a mess. Okay, I know it’s panto and the story doesn’t really stand up to much scrutiny, but at least it should have a start a middle and an end.
And the references are just so out of date. It feels like a show from 1983 with mentions for Return of the Jedi, or at a push, The Addams Family from a decade later, when the Christina Ricci films were popular. Okay, the stage version of The Addams Family is doing the rounds, but it doesn’t feel mainstream enough to be worth a musical number. (’Oh yes it does!’ you may cry.) There’s the obligatory Trump and Brexit comments for the parents, but none of it feels like a panto for today.
“Jokes, songs and slapstick”
As a kid I used to watch Little and Large’s TV show. One of the reasons I liked it was Eddie making references to stuff happening at the time. It felt relevant and ahead of the dated other comics.
And don’t get me started at that half-way film, where our heroes flee from ‘Super Troopers’’, dropping in at various York spots for a series of woeful sponsor-inspired sketches. One recurring TV favourite’s performance as a giant may give little ones nightmares, and not for his Olivier-worthy acting either.
None of what I think will matter a jot of course to the countless families who have been enjoying this nonsense for years. And fair play to the team for keeping the art alive.
My first experience of any theatre was panto, and it’s something I’ve never forgotten. I didn’t care about the songs or the gags. Whether it had a start, middle or end, or the story structure. I just loved that feeling of seeing something special happening in front of my eyes with ‘Dana off the telly’.
And for the kids who went nuts at Kaler’s latest smorgasbord of jokes, sketches, songs and slapstick, in 45 years they’ll still have a warm, fuzzy memory of those strange characters breathing life into a well worn, rather odd story.
Will I be back next year? Of course.
Christmas has now officially started because 12 months after the culture shock of seeing my first Berwick Kaler panto, Cinderella, I’m now becoming part of that annual tradition where, for a few hours, anything goes.
David Leonard brilliantly milks his villainous part as Dr McCarb like the cow at the heart of the story, and Suzy Cooper steals my heart once more with her expert comedy schtick. Her ‘It’s behind you’ routine with Leonard is a sheer joy.
The fact she made an appearance as Princess Leia (sigh) may have helped alleviate my confusion. (That and the fact I got to meet Look North legend Clare Frisby at half time).
JATB, as no-one is calling it, might be all over the place, but it’s a glorious splash of warm-hearted colour on an icy December night, and I’ve no doubt it’ll be a massive success until it bows out on February 3, 2018.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off for a lie down. My mind has been well and truly blown. Oh yes it has.
images: Anthony Robling