Review: Jack and the Beanstalk (Lyric Hammersmith)
Vikki Stone stars as Fleshcreep in the west London theatre's latest pantomime
The Lyric Hammersmith panto has a reputation as the wokest, coolest Christmas show in town: a voguish playwright with creative freedom, an ethnically diverse cast, and a panto peppered with contemporary references and live music. This year's offering – Jack and the Beanstalk – is no different. Joel Horwood's adaptation, co-directed by Jude Christian and Lyric Hammersmith artistic director Sean Holmes, is a lurid, messy, technicolour splurge of a show, laden with political metaphor and sprinkled with industry in-jokes.
On one level, it's a family-friendly, fairytale caper. Hard-up farmer Jack – regendered here as a girl – exchanges Daisy the Cow for three magic beans, then ventures up the resultant stalk to do battle with the booming, man-eating giant and his angry, golden goose. On another level entirely, though, it's a pointed social satire on London's spiralling housing crisis.
The main villain is local landlord Squire Fleshcreep – Squire Boris Nigel Theresa Donald Fleshcreep Rees-Mogg to be exact. His mirthless money-grabbing has Jack and her mum – Dame Lotte Trottalot – and the rest of Ye Olde Hammersmith (Ye Olde Flyover, Ye Olde King's Mall, Ye Old Broadway Centre) scrabbling to scrape together the rent every month. Jack's cash-seeking trip up the beanstalk isn't to get rich, it's to stave off her family's impending homelessness.
There's lots for the little ones to love in Christian and Holmes' production. Jean Chan's design is an eye-popping tapestry of primary colours and flashy costumes - giant vegetables, talking cows, etc. The classic routines are all here too and, mercifully, they're not done to death either.
And, political allegories aside, there's plenty for adults to enjoy, too. Corin Buckeridge's musical accompaniment, played live from the pit, is an appealing mix of re-worked chart toppers. There's Ed Sheeran's "Shape of You" ('I'm in love with your money!', sings Squire Fleshcreep). There's Clean Bandit's "Symphony" ('I just want to clamber up your beanstalk tree!'). There's even Outkast's "Hey Ya" ('Paaaa-a-a-ntoooo, pa-a-ntoooo!'). Hipster theatre fans can anticipate a few self-satisfied chuckles, as well: there are a few sideways nods towards Daniel Kramer's A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Globe, towards Julius Caesar, and – brilliantly – towards Caryl Churchill's Escaped Alone.
But this ain't a perfect panto, by a long shot. Horwood's text is decidedly ropey – most of the jokes are awful, and not good awful – and he strains to stretch a barebones fairytale plot over two-and-a-half hours. Christian and Holmes' direction is energetic, but not particularly imaginative, and the audience participation is really half-baked. The performances are decidedly varied, too, ranging from whole-heartedly exuberant – Vikki Stone's Fleshcreep is a delight, as is Kayla Meikle's Daisy – to mood-killingly lacklustre – Kraig Thornber phones in Dame Lotte throughout. It's a good panto, but far from a great one.
Jack and the Beanstalk runs at the Lyric Hammersmith until 6 January.