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'Jack and the Beanstalk' review – the original score and an adorable cow make this pantomime special

Read our three-star review of panto Jack and the Beanstalk, now in performances at Theatre Royal Stratford East to 6 December.

Julia Rank
Julia Rank

With its crucial role in propping up the finances of many theatres throughout the year, no one wants pantomime season to have a rough ride. Press night at Theatre Royal Stratford East’s Jack and the Beanstalk experienced a late start and then the curtain fell abruptly shortly before the end of the first half when the "enormous erection" that is the beanstalk had a technical issue. But we got there in the end and all was well.

Denzel Westley-Sanderson’s production is something of a curate’s egg. Set in the town of Splatford-on-Ooze, home of a once-thriving mud industry, the locals have insufficient amounts to sell as horrible Giant Belch takes most of it. A protest number opens the show ,but our would-be hero Jack (plucky Nikhil Singh Rai) is too dopey to be of much use.

Yet despite the political set-up, the production eschews topical gags. The book follows a timeless and wholesome morality tale that’s clearly signposted without being too preachy.

What makes the show special is the original and full score by Robert Hyman (also co-lyricist) that moves the story along with songs written for the characters and embraces multiple styles – including contemporary musical theatre numbers, pop, rap and bhangra.

A highlight is the scenery-chewing baddie number for tough-talking Flesh Creep (Lucy Frederick) and her snivelling knickerbockered son Junior (a scene-stealing Billy Lynch) who is dominated by his mummy but has the capacity to be nice.

Book writer and co-lyricist Anna Jordan’s storytelling has admirable clarity, though it does take a while to get into the fun that defines pantomime. Nathan Kiley as Jack’s mum, bouffant blonde dairy-owner Milky Linda, doesn’t have as much warmth as the best dames, but her dress covered in takeaway coffee cups is a visual highlight, and "self defecation" is an ickily good malapropism.

The standout of the bunch is the mellow-voiced Savanna Jeffrey as Jack’s beloved cow Winnie the Moo, a true friend who is so sweet and imploring in her knitted cow suit.

The nut milk number that comes late in the game feels surplus to requirements and tacked on for the adults (it isn’t like there’s an insufficient amount of innuendo beforehand – the kind that goes over the heads of younger audience members). Lily Arnold’s straightforward design serves its purpose (lots of bright colours and fluffy clouds for the second act) but isn’t the most eye-catching and feels limited by budgetary constraints.

The messages the show espouses are positive ones for audience members of all ages, and all the dairy references may well inspire cravings for interval ice creams. Winnie would be pleased.

Jack and the Beanstalk is at Theatre Royal Stratford East through 6 January.

Photo credit: Jack and the Beanstalk (Photo by Mark Senior)

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