Grand Opera House, Belfast – until 13 January 2019
Guest reviewer: Damien Murray
Jack’s back!… and so is pantomime in all its traditional glory in this truly spectacular show that remains as magical as Jack’s famous beans.
The key to the success of any panto is not only having all of the required elements, but achieving the right balance of its ingredients – staging, spectacle, performance, humour, music, choreography, magic, special effects, sound and lighting etc – to make it equally appealing and entertaining to all of its cross-generational audience… and this production has it all with balance finely tuned in all departments.
However, the most challenging thing about this super slick production is how to give this annual treat a new direction in terms of returning to more traditional values without diminishing the hi-tech appeal and special effects that modern audiences have come to expect and appreciate.
So, while the humour is more traditionally corny and the re-introduction of both a speciality act and some visual magic adds the degree of old time ‘variety’ lacking in so many current pantomimes, the visual impact of the show-stealing effects embraces more than ‘smoke and mirrors’ to keep the theatrical tricks as hi-tech as possible to impress even the most critical of today’s demanding audience.
The simple trick of having the ever-present twinkling of lights incorporated into the star curtain on the surrounding set proscenium is most effective in ensuring that the magical feel of panto is always there.
While the stunningly beautiful sets, lighting and costumes all play a big part in the overall success of this great team effort, the story, which is re-imagined and relocated to Belfast in true panto style with lots of popular local references and jibes, throws up great characters for all, especially the show’s four main principals.
Now in her 29th year as the pantomime dame at this prestigious venue, May McFettridge (aka John Linehan) remains as popular as ever (in the role of Jack’s Mummy, Dame May Trot) as she effortlessly targets fellow cast members and audience alike with her quick-fire put-downs and, with the addition this year of a video camera, is in her element as she embarrasses her audience victims even more by projecting them onto an on-stage screen during her relentless banter.
Although this idea brings audience participation to a new level, I must admit that the one type of participation I miss this year is May’s excellent encounters with very young children as she ‘interviews’ them on stage with hilarious, if unpredictable, results.
As usual, her partner in crime is local actor and pantomime regular, Paddy Jenkins (as her long-suffering husband, Farmer Paddy Trot), who has become an expert at comedy timing and delivery over the years.
Also big in the comedy stakes is former cruise comic, Rikki Jay (as their son and brother of the more ‘clued in’ Jack), who -with his simplistic one-liners and likeable character- proves a big hit with the children in the audience.
However, following his outstanding performance in last year’s panto, the quick return of the multi award-winning, David Bedella (as the Giant’s villainous and evil henchman, Fleshcreep) is a masterstroke for the venue as there are few actors as good at being bad as Bedella when it comes to being the ultimate ‘baddie’… without being too scary for the little ones.
This quartet is ably supported throughout by Joanna O’Hare’s Mother Nature, Georgia Lennon’s Princess Apricot, Michael Pickering’s Jack, an adult ensemble and talented young performers from the McMaster Stage School, while an added attraction is the speciality roller-skating act -Italian duo, Armando Ferriandino and Giovanna Manuela Mar- who bring skill and daring to the show as The Belfast Roller Rollers.
Under Mark Dougherty’s musical direction, the small 5-piece orchestra work hard on the varied score to offer many musical highlights, including Justin Timberlake’s ever-popular Can’t Stop The Feeling, Talk To The Animals from Dr. Dolittle, an almost obligatory offering from The Greatest Showman, Michael Jackson’s Bad and Frank Sinatra’s My Way.
With a tight hold on both direction and choreography, Andrew Wright ensures a memorable panto experience for all and while other highlights include the choreographed cow and other farmyard animals (with most realistic costuming), the novelty scene when the squashed Simon sings and dances, the tongue twister tales and the slapstick principal line routine, the show stealers are the appearance of the mighty Giant and that of May’s transportation to the top of the beanstalk, which, as the Act 1 finale, even puts Miss Saigon to shame in terms of theatrical special effects.
Yes, traditional panto is back in Belfast with a bang (and I don’t just mean the pyrotechnics) and I am so glad that, on her first ever visit to a panto, one of my grandchildren could experience a gigantic spectacular of such quality as this really is Northern Ireland’s biggest and best panto.
Jack and the Beanstalk runs at the Grand Opera House until Sun 13th January, 2019