It’s Panto Time again! Oh no it isn’t… oh for Heaven’s sake, grow up. The first of four pantos for us this season – and three of them are Jack and the Beanstalk. Typical isn’t it. Like the old joke about London buses, you wait ages for a Jack and the Beanstalk and then three turn up at once. The production that will be gracing the stage of the Royal and Derngate in Northampton for the festive season stars Keala Settle as Fairy Sugarsnap. That’s right! The Greatest Showman’s Keala Settle. Trouble is, I’ve never seen The Greatest Showman, and I confess I’d never heard of Ms Settle until hearing about this show. But does that matter? Oh no it doesn’t!
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Jack and the Beanstalk is a traditional family panto produced by that expert Maison de Panto, Evolution Pantomimes. Evolution’s fingerprints are all over this show, from having the band in one of the boxes, opening with the boys and girls of the chorus singing Bring Me Sunshine, having the dame as a self-confessed fat bloke in a dress, and including the bench scene with something scary looming behind whilst our heroes sing Always Look On the Bright Side of Life. And why not? This is a winning formula, guaranteed to make you laugh and smile. And let’s face it, Evolution produce better pantos than Qdos. There, I’ve said it.
All the required elements are there in abundance. It’s a lovely, colourful, dynamic set; terrific costumes; a three piece band under Uncle Garry Jerry that punches way above its height, and – for the most part – an extremely funny script. The songs are superbly chosen and integrated into the story, and with an appropriate musical theatre leaning considering the presence of Ms Settle. I spotted musical references to Hair, Hamilton and Les Miserables; it wouldn’t surprise me if there were more. The story ends with a lovely spot of redemption, reminding us that there is always a time when the hatred has to stop – good lesson for the kids, that. Added to which, the plotline incorporates a relevant dig at climate change concerns, which is going to appeal to your more intelligent children; and there’s a cute doggy for everyone else. There are – perhaps – a couple of scenes that haven’t quite bedded in properly yet – I don’t think the dog training scene worked particularly well, for example; but to counterbalance that there is brilliant use of new technology with the Drone of Love, which is used to find Dame Trott’s future husband in the audience; and a projection screen that enhances a couple of the scenes – and which works especially well in the boyband finale, I’ll say no more.
Bob Golding returns as Dame Trott – he’s rapidly becoming a Northampton Town Fixture, if I’m not talking Cobblers; but this is the first time I’ve seen him, and he’s a delight. Self-assured and a barrel of laughs, he has great interaction with the audience and with the rest of the cast, and he’s given some brilliant costumes to play with – none funnier than his unexpected appearance as Sir Elton John. There’s also a fantastically funny scene where he is trapped inside the weather-making machine and becomes victim to the worst the weather can do. Obvious, but hilarious.
I really liked Cara Dudgeon as Jess, our young heroine – full of pluck and attack and a terrific voice; she was ably matched by Ben Thornton’s Billy, in whose gang we all wanted to be, and Alex Lodge’s Jack, an interesting characterisation of a reluctant hero who knows he has to climb the beanstalk to save the world but is too scared to do so. The Villager boys and girls are excellent, with some great song and dance routines – I particularly liked them when they were the henchman’s zombies.
And so to Keala Settle, who has taken on what must be a very alien role – the vegetable fairy in a pantomime – with tremendous gusto and embraced it fully. She has an amazing singing voice which is given plenty of opportunity to let rip, and she’s full of fun and vigour. It must feel bizarre for a Broadway star to rock the stage of the R&D as a fairy with an artichoke wand, but she does a terrific job.
However, stealing every scene is the brilliant Richard David-Caine as the baddie, Luke Backinanger – he announces his name and says “let that sink in” – yes, I got the joke. Camping it up something rotten, he delivers his punchlines with a wonderful blend of knowing devilry and faux-innocence. It’s not often that the stage lights up when the baddie comes on – but it sure does here. He had us absolutely in the palm of his hand.
Loads to love in this panto – it’s on at the Royal and Derngate until 2nd January. You’d be a fool not to. Oh yes you would!
Production photos by Pamela Raith