Jack & The Beanstalk, review: Devonshire Park Theatre, Eastbourne, until January 12
Giants are there to be slain, and giant Beanstalks are there to be fearlessly climbed.
This Christmas, a dashing Jack does both in a dazzling Devonshire Park pantomime. Yes, this production simply scales the heights.
Jack and the Beanstalk is the theatre’s 19th in-house pantomime, once again written and directed by Chris Jordan. Some of the youngsters from the 2001 audiences will be bringing their own nippers to be touched by the same magic, for this is one Eastbourne tradition which spans the generations.
The stats alone are larger than life. Tuesday’s press night marked the mere sixth performance in a run of 62. Some 35,000 people – one third of the town’s population – will have seen Jack climb that Beanstalk between now and mid-January. Dame Martyn Knight has 12 changes of costume, or 13 if you include a rather glamorous dressing gown. Costume genius Shelley Claridge and her team will have spent about 600 person-hours on the project. And 17,955 ice-creams will be consumed, of which 62 percent are chocolate flavoured. Ok, I made that last bit up, but you get the drift...
It is apocryphal, but true, that Chris takes thirteen months to produce each annual pantomime (he is already working on the 2020 Sleeping Beauty project).
In recent years, UK panto production has veered in two directions. Some take the rock and pop route, with big glitzy musical numbers and big names. Others cherish the tradition, tell the story properly – and keep the cross-dressing. At the Devvy, you get a proper pantomime.
The first half is bright, engaging, full of fun. Welcome to a Pantoland ruled by benign and rather cuddly King Custard (Robert Ashe). Within minutes familiar characters are on first-name terms, so to speak, with the audience, and we are all embracing the story. There’s a Good Fairy to cheer, a villain to boo, and Simple Simon to laugh with. In the best sense, it is pantomime on safe ground, and expertly delivered.
The comedy is in the two safest pairs of hands in pantomime. Tucker’s Simple Simon and Martyn Knight’s Dame Trott have creasing humour, intuitive timing and non-stop patter, whether planned or improvised. Clarabelle the Cow flutters her lovely eyelashes and troops obediently off to be sold at market – only for Jack to be cheated into selling her for a bag of beans by Steven Serlin’s drippingly evil Fleshcreep. No panic, Jack: Fairy Fuschia – a warm and winning Natalie Hope – has transformed them with a whisk of her wand. Magic beans, and magical panto.
But if Act One warms your hearts, Act Two will knock you over. Gripping excitement and genuine tension, and a visual sense-surround of dazzling effects. This is pantomime plus.
The story itself is actually more than just seasonal froth: it has threads of heroism, courage, and fear conquered. Where Cinderella floods a theatre with white light, Jack and the Beanstalk has a hint of darkness. And Jordan’s production has heart-stopping moments – enhanced by some of the finest effects you will see.
With Giants and Beanstalks, it would be easy to cop out: just an offstage thump of gargantuan footsteps, but no actual giant? An illusory beanstalk which no-one actually climbs? Nope. Readers, you must grab a ticket and see for yourselves, but this production gives you the whole nine yards.
Katherine Glover’s dashingly thigh-slapping Jack is the perfect principal boy, sweeping Princess Jill – a delightful, bright-eyed Victoria Farley – off her feet. When the Beanstalk appears – with a couple of glorious, slightly Triffid-esque offshoots – Katherine is shinning up like an Olympic heptathlete.
And the Giant’s Kitchen simply breathes danger. The bright primary colours of Act One are now replaced by atmospheric greens and purples, and feline, almost serpentine figures are swirling on all fours. Emma Woods’ fantastic choreography far exceeds formulaic panto norms – and a deserved mention here for the talented ensemble foursome of Daisy Darvill, Jonny Gatenby, Bradley Trevethan and Sophia Tyndall-Bristow. Bright and nimble movement, too, from the juveniles of Deborah Lamb Theatre Arts.
Stunning imaginative design has Princess Jill trapped and terrified, a bird in a glided cage. Shades of Sweeney Todd’s Johanna, or even a Little Shop of Horrors. She is just inches, and seconds, from becoming a Giant’s supper until Jack and the gang conjure up a heroic rescue. Stand up for what’s right, declares Jack! Stand up and applaud, for this is a five-star show.
Sparkling, startling, stunning. This is not just pantomime, it is Devonshire Park pantomime – and it’s a delicious, irresistible feast.
Tickets cost £12 to £23.50 (group discounts available) from 01323 412000 or www.eastbournetheatres.co.uk.
Find out more about the pantomime’s official launch here.
Eddie Izzard at Bexhill’s De La Warr Pavilion: a reading of Great Expectations. Click here to read more.
Discover the bizarre inhabitants of Britain: an interview with cartoonist Chelsea Renton. Click here to read more.
East Sussex entertainment listings, Friday to Thursday, December 6-12. Click here to read more.