Jack and the Beanstalk pantomime at Theatre Royal Stratford East – review

Denzel Westley-Sanderson’s ecological panto runs until 6 January

Nathan Kiley in a scene from Jack and the Beanstalk at Theatre Royal Stratford East
Nathan Kiley in Jack and the Beanstalk, © Mark Senior

The fun quota is as high as the beanstalk snaking up into the Stratford East flies at the end of act one of this pastel-coloured charmer. Pitched halfway between small-scale traditional panto and full-on anarchy, Anna Jordan and Robert Hyman’s take on the beloved story, now set in Splatford-on-the-Ooze where sky-dwelling giant Belch cyphons off the town’s precious natural resource (mud) and charges extortionate rents to the unfortunate residents, has some decent good-bad jokes and messages about egalitarian and ecological living that never tips over into preachiness. It’s vital and silly, if a bit long to justify its lack of real substance and that it’s very much aimed at the more junior viewers.

That said, it’s a show that never talks down to younger audience members but has enough double entendres and political nods, mainly thanks to Nathan Kiley’s unusually glamorous Dame, to keep the grownups reasonably happy. Kiley’s Milky Linda, the titular Jack’s mother, has a look of Barbie gone to seed (she even suggests Margot Robbie might be appropriate casting when they make the film version of her life) and is a goddess of upcycling, wafting about in a nightie made of coloured bin bags or a ball gown composed of recycled coffee cups. The imaginative costume designs are by Lily Arnold, but Milky Linda’s megawatt smile is all her own.

Rather than using existing songs, Jordan and Hyman have created an agreeable pop score with an eclecticism that nicely reflects Stratford’s multiculturalism. I particularly liked the lilting calypso for Winnie the Moo (Jack’s cow) about the importance of constant friendships, and a second act rap for Linda and her sidekick Billy (Max Gill, totally adorable) extolling the virtues of veganism. Villainess Flesh Creep (Lucy Frederick, like an unholy mash-up of a flame-haired, leather-clad punk rocker and your worst EastEnders nightmare) gets an especially fun number pointing out that stories are pretty tedious without their baddies, augmented by a twerking Darth Vader that brings the house down.

Savanna Jeffrey’s Winnie, with her cowhide onesie, owl-like specs and giant Afro challenged by two huge protruding ears, is an object lesson in how to engage a crowd. This Winnie’s a Jamaican-accented cow, with a diva-esque belt and a penchant for long words, dance hall moves and McDonald’s, and she holds the audience right in the clove of her hoof. Alongside her, Nikhil Singh Rai’s brooding, awkward Jack is hugely likeable, and feels like he could have just wandered in from the E15 streets.

If it all sags a bit in the second half and the overriding chaos sometimes threatens to get out of control, there are still some delightful comic touches in Denzel Westley-Sanderson’s staging. It’s a shame though that the sound design renders unintelligible about 40 per cent of what’s being sung and said.

Still, it’s hard not to warm to a production that features Milky Linda dressed up to the nines and centre stage riding hell for leather on an exercise bike in an attempt to extract the milk from nuts (having seen the error of her previous dairy ways) while in the background Gill’s Bill gets covered in gunk. This may not be vintage pantomime but it’s warm-hearted, forward-thinking and genuinely reflects the community it was created for.