Grow At The Panto: Jack And The Beanstalk
Grow Talk by Sofy Robertson
Photography by Mark Dawson
It was a wet Wednesday evening when my colleague Drew and I arrived at the Exeter Northcott Theatre for their production of Jack and the Beanstalk. Drew, who has a theatre background and makes it a priority to see a panto every year, was visibly excited. Having not seen a panto since I was about twelve, I wasn’t sure what to expect.
After a gap of eight years, The Northcott put on its first panto, Dick Wittington, last year and due to its success, panto has returned again for 2018, sponsored by Salcombe Dairy.
Steve Bennett, who played various panto dames in the fourteen-year stint of successful panto at The Northcott, returned this year in the role of Dame Dotty Trott, but also in the role of Director and Writer.
Flicking through the program, I was pleasantly surprised by how many members of the cast had local ties. Bennet began his professional career at The Northcott over thirty years ago after training at R.A.D.A and went on to perform in a number of Shakespearean plays, including a stint in the West End. Dan Ball (The Giant) has just finished touring with The Northcott’s production of Don Carlos, which Grow Talk reviewed in October, and has performed in a number of local pantomimes as well as touring the UK. Noel White (Billy) has returned to The Northcott for his eleventh Christmas show. Finally, Jessie May (Jack) hails from Exeter and launched her career in The Northcott’s Young Chorus before going on to tour both nationally and internationally.
As Drew and I settled into our seats, a jolly overture began. The curtain was raised, and we were greeted with a face-off type scene between Fairy Mistletoe (Emma Stansfield) and Fleshcreep (Mark Jardine). Aspects of the costume struck me at this point; Fairy Mistletoe’s glittery high tops, for example, a modern touch which juxtaposed nicely with Fleshcreep’s more traditional ‘baddy’ outfit of top hat and velour tail coat.
There was a great jubilance from the cast as they were introduced to the audience. Silly Billy (Noel White) and his myriad of comic faces went down particularly well with the younger audience whereas the introduction of Dame Dotty Trott later in the show benefitted the adults with some laughs and inside jokes.
The traditional story of Jack and the Beanstalk had been followed loosely to varying effect. Modern and geographical touches were added, for example SPOILER ALERT Jack (Jessie May) singing The Climb and a song from the Greatest Showman creeping in.
As with traditional panto, the Dame was, of course, played by a man and Jack was played by a woman (causing a small girl a lot of confusion judging by the conversation I overheard in the toilets at the interval – “But Jack and Jill are both girls mummy?”) Daisy the cow was kept in the storyline and provided a great amount of comedy and the Golden Goose made her feature at the end.
On the whole, the humour of the show was largely directed at the younger audience. However, the sweet shop skit between Dame Dotty and Silly Billy had a little something for everyone. Here, the jokes were so corny and clichéd, they ended up getting funnier and funnier. I can only imagine how long the scene must have taken to plan and write, with over thirty sweetie -related gags in quick succession.
As the show headed toward the inevitable interval point, I began to wonder about two of the major elements of Jack and the Beanstalk; the beanstalk itself and the Giant. From the program, I knew that Jessie May had been practicing climbing at the Quay Climbing Centre, so some sort of beanstalk construction was inevitable. I won’t spoil how set designer Alexander McPherson did it, but I can say it was effective and a great way to end the first Act. As for the Giant, thus far the character had been represented by a booming voice. In Act Two, we got to see the Giant in the flesh, so to speak. Again, I won’t spoil the magic, but Rebecca Lee who designed the Giant did a great job of making a comical, yet giant Giant.
Having read the program before the performance, I knew to expect ghosts as it was mentioned on the Young Chorus page. I wasn’t quite sure how this would go with the storyline, but anything goes in panto, right? This turned out to be my favourite part of the performance. SPOILER ALERT Cue the young cast in ghost costumes and face paint led by Jaz Franklin and Dan Ball in a rendition of The Time Warp. Fairy Mistletoe took on The Criminologist’s role at the whiteboard, directing the steps and the young chorus, along with Jack, Silly Billy, Dame Trot and Flesh Creep, time warped away. This scene was highly effective and clearly enjoyed by the audience and in doing so, highlighted the potential that this pantomime could have.
I admit, it has been a long time since I have seen a pantomime, but I don’t remember there being quite so much singing. The quality of the singing itself was not at fault, but the amount, and at times length, of the songs tended to wear on a little. There were clearly some great, and well-thought through song choices, which held modern appeal or pure comedy value (the Time Warp was the best example of this) but shorter snippets of some of the more emotional ballads may have been more effective.
Before the finale, Dame Trot invited two children onto the stage for a chat. This genius idea could have formed the premise for a whole new show. Five-year-old Amelie and Alfie, who was celebrating his seventh birthday and turned out to be Dame Trot/Steve Bennet’s youngest son, provided almost ten minutes of side-splitting comedy because, let’s face it, there’s no humour quite like the brutal honesty of a five and seven-year-old.
Overall, The Northcott have produced a decent family panto with some fantastic highlights. I have no doubt that the children were having a great time, but it missed the mark a little for the adults who will inevitably be in the audience. Panto, by its very nature of cross-dressing and over-acting, is meant to be naughty. Both Drew and I were used to shows with lude humour and jokes aimed at adults that whizzed over the kids’ heads. This, for me, was where this production was lacking. There were moments of adult humour and appeal, but far too few to make this pantomime as appealing to its audience of parents and grandparents as to its audience of children. That being said, I left the theatre feeling pleasantly uplifted and decidedly festive, especially following the relief that Fleshcreep and the Giant had not succeeded in cancelling Christmas after all.