As panto season goes full steam ahead, it is the Lyric Hammersmith who make the early running in London with a new version of Jack and the Beanstalk by playwright du jour Tom Wells, who takes over writing duties from Joel Horwood and Morgan Lloyd Malcolm. The pair have established the Lyric as one of the go-to venues for modern panto in the capital, their irreverent humour bringing the classic stories bang up to date and locating them in the borough itself, so that audiences can experience a genuine Merry Hammersmith-mas. That is, if the evil giant in the sky Nostril doesn’t ruin Christmas for everyone by stealing everything good.
And true to form, Wells’ script is full of contemporary and local references: Nando’s, library closures, Lyric Square, Miley Cyrus and the inevitable twerking all make appearances as does a friendly jab at the Hackney Empire’s panto, And the young playwright’s gift for character peeks through with a pairing of a Jack and a Jill you won’t be expecting, Joshua Tonks’ Jill is the kind of bashful young man we’ve come to expect from him and Rochelle Rose’s Jack is a confident and pragmatic hero whose determination seems set to save the day when those pesky magic beans give rise to an impressively green beanstalk.
But it is Steven Webb’s Sprout who is the lynchpin of Dan Herd’s production, a narrator of sorts as Jack’s best friend and the Buttons-like character who has the most to do in terms of encouraging audience interaction and his previous experience here in Hammersmith is brought to bear as he skilfully draws in the younger members of the audience with pocketsful of sweets, whilst flashing enough innocuous naughtiness to keep the adults entertained too. Howard Ward’s dame equally treads this balance well as Jack’s plaintive mother, desperate to keep hold of her cow Caroline whilst keeping the bailiffs at bay, led by Nigel Richard’s henchman and former flame Mr Fleshcreep.
Powered by their Young Ensemble, the show opens strongly, wearing its funky fresh modernity well. But the second half does lose its way a little though as it becomes clear that there’s little dramatic drive left – the all-threatening Nostril is severely underused and so the focus lands squarely on the entertainment side. And where a pulsingly contemporary soundtrack illuminated the first half, the second slides into a more retro groove – a Bonnie Tyler sequence is excellently done but an extended Sweet Caroline singalong feels perhaps a little misjudged for a large proportion of the target audience.
So a solid start for the season, entertaining rather than extraordinary and should Wells return next year as scribe, it will be interesting to see if he develops from this at-times hesitant debut to balance its constituent parts more effectively. An effervescent cast though, powered by the Duracell bunny-like unflagging brightness of Steven Webb, make sure that it remains a great deal of fun for audiences old and young.