JACK AND THE BEANSTALK

★★★★

_REVIEW.   it’s about _THEATRE.   words _KYLE PEDLEY.   at _BIRMINGHAM HIPPODROME.   tickets _OFFICIAL SITE.   booking until 28th JAN.

December 20, 2023

images © Paul Coltas.

“Same jokes, different costume.”

You can’t help but admire the irrepressible tenacity of Brum panto favourite, Matt Slack. Much is (deservedly) made of this year’s offering, Jack and the Beanstalk, being his tenth outing on the Birmingham Hippodrome stage. No mean feat, and a rousing riff on Sinatra’s ‘That’s Life’ (‘That’s Pantomime’), recapping his various roles and co-stars over the years, is one of the evening’s highlights – moving and funny in equal measure. He even gets a cheeky slip in about his 2016/17 co-star John Barrowman being a bit of a ‘c*ck’.

Having done a masterful job over the past decade of strutting, tomfooling and improv’ing his way around the law of diminishing returns, it has to be said that this year’s Beanstalk, in which Slack plays the traditional fool in the form of Jack’s (Alexanda O’Reilly) older brother, ‘Jake’, feels like the first time the inimitable Slack magic and formula has begun to feel just that tiniest bit familiar.

He’s still, pound-for-pound, gag-for-gag, one of the most dependable funny men you could wish for on a panto stage (and mercifully already signed up for round eleven, in next year’s Peter Pan), but outside of a rather ingenious A-Z of impersonations and the aforementioned ‘That’s Pantomime’, there’s a recurring niggling sense that, by Slack’s own admission, we’ve seen and heard much of it before (hilarious though it may be).

The other big sell this year is the debut of local gal-done-good, Alison Hammond, in what is contrarily her first ever panto. Similar to Slack, not only does the This Morning and Bake Off presenter make for a natural fit for self-deprecating, giddy pantomime silliness as the ‘Spirit of the Beans’, lighting up the stage during everything from a goofy Strictly/Dirty Dancing mashup to the perhaps-inevitable TikTok interlude, but so too does she offer up some poignancy and even a tug on the old heart-strings. Most notably when paying homage to her late mom, drawing attention to the seat dedicated to her memory in the Hippodrome auditorium, and her own personal history with the theatre.

Together, Slack and hammond are spirited, vibrant and consummately entertaining, and there’s no denying the opulent, Olivier-nominated staging by Mark Walters somehow becomes even more dazzling whenever they take to it. It has become tradition for the Hippodrome to inherit the previous year’s London Palladium panto, so there’s little surprise that here is a show positively packed with at-times jaw-dropping production value and glitz. A towering trio of puppet giants early on are merely an appetiser for some of the spectacle and scale to come. By the time Hammond struts out in an enormous neon peacock plume (unsurprisingly a Julian Clary hand-me-down) and the titular McMuffin bursts out from the stalls to reach up to the Hippodrome ceiling, there’s no denying this Beanstalk is comfortably one of the biggest, richest and most visually stunning pantos in all the land.

“..there’s no denying this Beanstalk is comfortably one of the biggest, richest and most visually stunning pantos in all the land.”

It’s just a slight shame that, in what feels like a whippet-fast (some may even say hurried…) variety extravaganza, so many of the fantastic cast feel rather underused. The ever excellent Andrew Ryan gives great dame, and benefits from the best of Hugh Durrant’s hilarious, high-concept costumes, but he’s mostly handed a couple of poe-faced ballads and, outside of some customary cheekiness with the front row, and repurposed Act II favourite ‘If I Were Not Upon The Stage’, Ryan doesn’t get all that much time or space to truly camp it up. Similar can be said of the fantastic Gill Jordan as Doreen Tipton who, despite finally getting a true panto realisation of her ‘lazy cow’ persona, is mostly used for song and dance numbers and (admittedly funny) dairy puns, yet is afforded precious little opportunity to showcase her comedic chops (sorry, we shouldn’t mention chops!). She does at least get the chance to put in another roof-raiser, after last year’s very welcome Cats surprise. We shan’t spoil which classic musical gets the ‘my goodness, she can really sing’ treatment this time round, but someone get this lady on a West End stage post-haste.

Samantha Womack proves a terrific panto villainess as giant’s wife, ‘Mrs Blunderbore’, who could probably do with a few more outwardly boo-hiss-worthy moments. Still, Womack sings and dances up a storm, and crucially doesn’t seem to be taking any of it all too seriously. The decision to upgrade the show’s ‘Princess Jill’ from pure damsel-in-distress to co-giant slayer is a nice, empowering and modern twist, even if the talented Billie-Kay is, again, sadly underutilised.

Local talent Alexanda O’Reilly, in the lead role of ‘Jack’ himself, fares slightly better, and is a whirlwind of flips, kicks and knockout vocals. He elevates the traditionally rather flat and beige panto prince persona into something boyishly energised and electric, and by the time he’s wowing in a barnstorming (quite literally) variety show number midway through, or traversing the towering beanstalk come the Act I curtain closer, there’s a palpable sense that a musical theatre star is born (or rather, affirmed – this not being O’Reilly’s first outing by any stretch of the imagination).

It’s rare to wish for a pantomime to be longer – and at just over two hours including the interval, Jack and the Beanstalk is by no means short. And yet, perhaps as overspill from its Palladium roots, it regularly tiptoes to feeling more akin to a fabulous, decadent variety fest than a conventional pantomime. Ryan, Jordan and Womack in particular all feel like their fabulousness needs an extra set piece or two to bed in and vamp up, and if Slack’s trademark back-and-forth with a selection of tykes from the audience would need to be where the hammer stroke fell, I think audiences could probably live with that (although the performance reviewed featured probably the single funniest and feistiest young guest to date).

Quibbles such as these aside, though, this is still glittering, big-budget panto gold. Hammond is an infectious, lovable delight and an inspired addition to the Hippodrome’s storied line-up of panto greats, and although it perhaps isn’t Slack’s absolute best year, it’s nonetheless a moving anniversary outing that reminds audiences of his inherent brilliance in the panto field. You will also flat out not find a regional production in the country that can compete with the sheer size and wonderment of what Michael Harrison and Crossroads conjure up again here.

So toss your magic beans onto the compost heap, leave your worries on the farm, and climb a joyous, dazzling variety beanstalk to the very heart of Brum with two of its most beloved stars.

A dazzling, occasionally jaw-dropping panto spectacular. If some of its glittering cast feel sadly a little sidelined, this is still big-budget, gold-plated entertainment, with Hammond a delightful and inspired addition to the Hippodrome’s storied panto lineup.

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