Jack & the Beanstalk – Cambridge 2008/09
Writer, director and Dame, Brad Fitt returns to the Cambridge Arts Theatre for his fifth consecutive Christmas pantomime with the story of an epic vegetable plant.
It is set in Shelton-under-quarantine, where Blunderbore the giant extorts taxes from the hapless villagers. The King (John Pennington) and his daughter, Princess Eugenie (Amy Castledine), have run out of ways to cut down their living expenses and Dame Trott’s family have to sell their beloved cow, Gertie. It was Dame Trott’s son, Silly Billy (Matt Crosby), who won the hearts and lungs of the audience, and stole the show. This is a fairy tale for the credit crunch and the cheery opening number, Colour My World (with sunshine) recalls the studied optimism which Oklahoma brought to America, following the Great Depression.
With the shamelessly plundered pop and musical favourites, such as Dolly Parton’s 9 to 5 and It’s Never Too Late to Fall in Love from The Boyfriend, and the Ghostbusters theme tune, local humour, colourful group numbers, continual set changes and with the endless comic possibilities of audience participation, there wasn’t much room for error.
The four children dragged on to the stage at the end and bribed with John Lewis gift bags clearly enjoyed it immensely.
Kids and adults agree. There is nothing funnier than someone slipping over in goo. The scene that earned the most laughs for Brad Fitt’s fifth Christmas pantomime for the Arts Theatre was the least choreographed of them all. Dame Trott and her son Silly Billy try to make ice-cream together. Billy gets confused and tries to mix up a bowl of ice-cream with his head, and the scene quickly progresses to a series of hilarious mishaps as Dame and offspring fight bravely to stand on a stage slick with milk, and the stage wins.
Who can explain the ancient and mystic comedy of someone flying head over heels or getting a face full of gunk?
But even if this scene behaves itself better in future performances, Jack and the Beanstalk is guaranteed to have children hiccupping with the giggles. It offers everything a good old fashioned pantomime ought to: a classic story, terrible jokes, great song and dance, a bit of romance, a comedy cow, and some horrifying costumes for the Dame.
Its only major departure with tradition involves a gender-confused Jack. In a story that involves hiking up a whopping great beanstalk, you might expect to get a flash of some well toned calf muscles, but I didn’t expect Jack’s upper thigh, exposed between stiletto thigh high boots and an indecently short jacket. Last year Julie Buckfield was all skirts and glass slippers as Cinderella; this year she has been cast as Jack Trott, and not much of her femininity has been compromised. This is fine until Jack’s romance with Princess Eugenie blossoms, where no amount of suspension of disbelief could get me past ‘his’ outfit.
Still, as younger audience members Michael and Charlie pointed out to me: it would have been weird not to have a girl playing a boy. That’s what pantomimes are for. And Georgia and Elli agreed that though it was weird at first, the acting was so good that they forgot.
A commendable set offers plenty of magical stage moments. A beautiful fairy twirls up into the rafters, a plane soars over scenes of Cambridge, and a terrifying giant dominates the stage. The dancing also is first class, and the children deserve top marks both for expert moves and for being really sweet.
Despite its traditional formula Jack and the Beanstalk is packed full of references to current trends, and the Strictly Come Dancing moments were particularly well received. Pop songs spring up at every turn providing easy sing-a-longs and guaranteed good tunes, and frequent bursts of local humour kept the adults chuckling.
This mixture of traditional pantomime and modern context is a winner. The laughter never died down, and Dame Trott and her son kept the audience involved at every moment, much to the cost of one particular male member of the audience who took Dame Trott’s fancy. Provided you don’t catch Dame Trott’s eye, Jack and the Beanstalk is guaranteed fun for the family.