South Hill Park’s offering for the panto season this year is a fun and colourful take on Jack and the Beanstalk written by Bart Lee and South Hill Park’s Ron McAllister. It’s sweet, endearing and often very funny but, most importantly, makes fantastic use of theatricality, bursting to life on the stage of the Wilde Theatre.
The best elements of the production are Victoria Spearing’s spellbinding design, and Alan Valentine’s fantastic lighting. The set is amazingly flexible, taking the audience from location to location smoothly and with style, and creating fabulous backdrops, memorably for the giant’s house, the farm and for the obvious centrepiece of the giant beanstalk. Valentine’s lighting complements Spearing’s set perfectly, and includes a number of lovely touches, such as a flashing light alarm effect, which is installed in the corners of the auditorium.
Julian Hirst, who both directs and takes the part of the Dame, holds the production together brilliantly, creating many of the strongest moments of comedy, and ensuring that the flow rarely falters. Unfortunately he’s working with material that’s very varied in its quality; there’s a good 40 minutes which could be cut to add some pacing to the piece, though the show also contains some of the funniest and most self-aware panto moments I’ve ever seen, many of which had me in stitches.
Perhaps most impressive are the moments where the writing teases "classic panto reactions" out of the audience, without the cast verbally asking for them or instructing the audience. There are no “he’s behind you!” moments that feel forced or uncomfortable; the responses just burst out of the audience in reaction to the action, which is exactly how it should be. Unlike other pantos I’ve seen this season, the “he’s behind you!”, and the “oh no you can’t!” sketches are inspired; using wonderful theatrical effects (which I won’t spoil by describing), and really adding to the narrative.
The real problem is the length of the show, but also a couple of the performances. David Blackwell and Francesca Eve give their all to the parts of Jack and Jill respectively, but their dialogue is dull and patronising throughout, unnecessarily so when the standard of the production elements is so high, and it really cheapens the whole show. The end of Act One is truly dire, and the family audience completely loses interest after having to sit still for nearly 75 minutes. It is such a shame, and so unnecessary – the action here, which even I can barely remember, adds nothing to the story, doesn’t develop any characters, and isn’t entertaining.
Act Two picks up, with the best performances coming from Amy Newman as Daisy The Cow aka Super-Moo, and Tom Neill as Monsieur Maurice, a French Comedian. Alongside them is of course the genius of Hirst, a fantastic Dame and an inspired director, who creates an exciting, entertaining and very funny piece of theatre.
As mentioned last month, South Hill Park is streaming this year’s pantomime live into hospitals and hospices around the country on the afternoon of Thursday 13 December. It’s this attitude of realising how important panto can be, taking it seriously as a means of entertainment, remembering that it’s often the first time children encounter theatre, that makes this Jack and the Beanstalk quite brilliant. Hirst makes the show a proper piece of comedy, not just a cheap Christmas kids' show.