Jack and the Beanstalk
The Lyric Hammersmith's panto starring Steven Webb opened last weekend
What would the Lyric Hammersmith do without Steven Webb? Currently appearing in Secret Theatre as part of their rep company, Webb has also been a bedrock of their annual pantomime for the last few years. And oh, doesn't it suit him down to the ground?
Panto uses his extensive musical theatre experience to ground the cast harmonies, harnesses his natural effervescence and sense of fun to create a great relationship with the audience, and allows him to break character as and when he needs or wants to.
And it has to be said, though it feels nail-bitingly horrible to say so, that without him this year's panto would be something of a wet blanket. This year, rather than returning to old favourites Morgan Lloyd Malcolm and Joel Horwood, the Lyric have chosen to try out young playwright Tom Wells (Jumpers For Goalposts, The Kitchen Sink) on Jack and the Beanstalk, suitable for six years old and over. It's Wells' first go at writing a panto, and it shows.
His other pieces are so naturalistic in comparison that this effort feels a little paint-by-numbers. He goes for cliches and doesn't always undercut them effectively, so the whole thing feels a little slow at points, especially when compared to last year's fast-paced, silly, madhouse Cinderella. Scenes with Howard Ward's dame Moreen Dripp are overlong, while the zumba jokes barely raise a laugh and the cow-milking is underpowered (you could cut it without issue).
This isn't to say it's not fun – there's plenty for adults and kids alike to enjoy and there are some great gags (the urban fox joke had us shrieking) – but structurally there are issues. This means that great moments mainly come thanks to the efforts of the actors than they do the script.
Nigel Richards makes a great Mr Fleshcreep, creepy and funny and over-the-top, his stonking voice both suiting and surprising in his solo number, while Joshua Tonks provides great comic relief as daft, dizzily posh Jill, pining after Jack (a fun Rochelle Rose). It's unfortunate that Ward (The Changeling, London Road), a great straight actor, is saddled with the dame role – he does his best but it's not a natural fit for him.
However, as ever wonderful Webb steals the show, the stage always brighter and more sparkly when he's on stage, gaining him a gooey-eyed following amongst the ten-year-olds in our row. Last year was a seminal year for Webb – best friend Julie Atherton to play off as Cinderella and scene-stealer extraordinaire Mel Giedroyc to battle with as Ms Hardup – and perhaps that's why he seems a little lost this year.
The thing is, the Lyric have always made a point of not casting star names, rather going for a strong script, a community ensemble and some clever subversions of what you might expect from panto. Perhaps achieving that was thanks to Lloyd Malcolm and Horwood, and perhaps that's because they had a few years to get it just right, but this year just feels rather self-consciously more of its genre than it has before. It's a shame, but it will still do well, and hopefully Wells will develop a less formulaic piece if he comes back next year.
Steven Webb had better be there...