The programme for the Barbican pantomime Jack and the Beanstalk, written by Jonathan Harvey with songs by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe, opens out to make a height chart: as long as you’re not taller than 150 cm, you’ll know exactly where you stand.
And you can pick up a few jokes, too. Such as: what’s the fastest vegetable? A runner bean. Some of these – and that one - are better than those in Harvey’s script, such as somebody being as fed up as Vanessa Feltz in a lean cuisine factory, or as Lindsay Lohan in a juice bar.
Harvey’s script is pretty neat, though, and I think an improvement on last year’s effort by Mark Ravenhill. The trouble is the Barbican auditorium is so inimical to the pantomime experience that it really feels like hard work until Giles Havergal’s expert production absorbs your confidence.
At least all the right bits of audience participation are in the right place this year, and the big bonus is Andy Gray’s Dame Dolly Deluxe, mother of Mad Matty (Ashley Campbell) and leggy Jack (Helen Baker), a classic Scottish dame with the right butch shoulder-shrugging repertoire of come-ons and put-downs. Can she serve cold milk? Of course she can: the cow’s Friesian.
The story is classically set up as a morality contest between the floating Fairy Liquid (Mel Giedroyc) and the dastardly Beastly Boris (Steve Furst, aka Lenny Beige and the fawning executive in the brilliant Orange cinema advertisements). The kingdom’s on the skids, the cow must be sold, and Jack must confront the giant (a great big shadow) when he climbs the stalk to rescue the non-stop singing Princess Melody (Alison Pargeter).
Some of the microphoning is far too tinny and Kenny Miller’s brilliant design is slightly undermined by too many light bulbs and a far too glossy stage surface punctured by two inconveniently placed onstage small orchestra pits; but the giant’s level is amazingly conveyed by scaled-down puppets, some great “black theatre” effects and a great sense of chase and danger. Well, I was scared, and so were some of the small folk around me.
Havergal’s a panto specialist, and he gets the right tone of performance from all the cast, including Jack Chissick as King Norman and Tony Jayawardena as the Major Domo. What happened, though, to the classic farewell scene of Jack and the cow? And how many beans make five? (A bean, a bean, a bean and a half, a half a bean and a bean). The songs are fine, cheerful and serviceable, with a rousing chorus for the Bog Standard villagers and a neatly used recurring paean to the attraction of opposites.
- Michael Coveney