Jack and the Beanstalk at Hackney Empire review – an excellent community affair of a production

Panto season is upon us!

Clive Rowe in Jack and the Beanstalk
Clive Rowe in Jack and the Beanstalk
© Manuel Harlan

Productions often say of themselves that "there is something here for everyone", but this description couldn't be more appropriate for Jack and the Beanstalk. Coming from a reviewer whose previous panto experience amounted to the childhood trauma of an atrocious Dick Whittington in 2009, co-directors Clive Rowe and Tony Whittle completely confounded my expectations with their production – it turns out panto isn't just for kids?

By means of comparison, one of the reasons early episodes of The Simpsons are so glorious is because they operate on different levels depending upon your age. The cartoon artfully combined silly gags to keep children entertained with clever material designed to go over their heads, and the same is true for Jack and the Beanstalk. The number of young adults in the audience suggests I was wrong in my original hypothesis that the only people that come to these shows are families.

As strong as the entire cast are, and Kat B is arguably the best of the rest as Simple Simon, it is Rowe who steals the show. His performance as Dame Trot imbues the evening with humour and warmth that would surely convert the firmest Grinch in the audience – this show really did feel like the start of the festive season. Rowe's interactions with members of the crowd were nothing short of hysterical and it seems as though he could have a stand up comedy career lined up if he fancied it.

It might appear inconsequential but writer Will Brenton's decision to locate a traditional fairy tale in the fictional Hackney-on-the-verge makes the production a truly community affair. Whether it's Cleo Pettitt's East London set design or the witty digs aimed at Shoreditch (and its infamous vegan artisan bread or oat milk), the details act as a kind of connective tissue to the people that live around Hackney Empire.

The pacing of the show is perfect. The first act is essentially spent frollicking around, meeting the characters and learning about their different nuances. Only after the interval does the story really start to pick up the pace, thoughtfully considered to keep younger members of the audience interested throughout the two and a bit hour running time.

Ably led by musical director Mark Dickman, the live band adds enormously to the entertainment and it is telling that the round of applause for the orchestra at the close is one of the evening's loudest. Being a panto, expectations are obviously for a score on the cheesier side but Steven Edis' original music has some really credible pop music in as well. The decision to launch into The Beatles' "Got To Get You Into My Life" as the closer was a genuine surprise in the best way possible.

There may be the odd hiccup with jokes that don't quite hit the mark but to pick tiny holes feels almost shameful. This is an excellent production and a really fun night out for people of all ages.