In the U.S., our Christmas entertainment traditions are cinematic. My family always watches films at home until late on Christmas Eve and goes out to the movies on Christmas Day, both of which are, in my experience, fairly common traditions. And there’s some live entertainment, Christmas pageants aside: lots of theatres make their annual budget from productions of A Christmas Carol, or endless re-workings and parodies thereof. But this, I have come to realise, does not match the scale of the pantomime on either an individual or cultural level.
A drama professor of mine once trotted out an Ian McKellan quote proposing that if the English were better than other English-speaking countries at theatre (as a room full of Americans, we all of course agreed that they were), it was because the English grew up watching pantos, and experiencing theatrical storytelling at its most pure and energetic. I’m not sure how much I buy into any part of that anecdote now, but there’s definitely something compelling about the idea that there is a whole theatrical occasion more or less designed to make (middle-class) children comfortable with going to the theatre, to making them feel welcomed there, and that maybe then they will feel that way for the rest of their lives.
This is all actually a way of talking around the fact that Jack and the Beanstalk at the Lyric Hammersmith was my first-ever panto. Considering that the child directly in front of me looked to be about 18 months old, I’m really behind the curve. Not that this matters necessarily: as I just said, this is a genre designed for children. Presumably every performance of a panto is not only someone in the audience’s first one, but someone in the audience’s first time in a theatre, full stop.
So did Jack and the Beanstalk delight and entertain me, a first-timer, and the children near me in the audience? Yes, absolutely. But with no previous panto experience, it’s hard to know how to exactly to praise this one. If I gush about the delightful baddie Fleshcreep (the most repulsive name ever) played with over-the-top glee and a sparkly blue moustache by Vikki Stone – if I praise her scene-stealing and woodwind solos, maybe I’m stating the obvious. Yes, dear, the baddie is always the best part. If I register my delight with the casual gender-swapping of the leading lovers, Faith Omole as a plucky and charming Jack and Daniel Fraser as the sheltered drama queen Jill, I fear being told that that’s common practice now, and nothing to write home about.
Writing about the look and sound feels impossible, too: the songs are all re-writes of pop hits – is that how it always is? Everything is in blindingly bright colours and sequins, the costumes a charming blend of faux-medieval and contemporary looks. The outfits of Jack’s mum Dame Lotte Trottalot (Kraig Thornier – even I know what a panto dame is) are like Miss Frizzle on speed, fantastically themed for every occasion, from gardening to prison. Is this level of razzle-dazzle all to be expected?
However, if there were a recipe for getting through a two and a half hour children’s show with only (as far as I noticed) one small child departing crying; if the simple fact of high spirits and good will made every family show charming even for adults; if Christmas meant that everyone had a lovely time no matter what – well then producers the world over would be happy. All the nostalgia and tradition in the world doesn’t guarantee that a show is any fun. Jack and the Beanstalk is lots of fun. It’s slyly lefty and warmly inclusive, with a home-grown spirit that’s proud and celebratory of Hammersmith itself. Rest assured, I was not plagued by these anxieties while watching it: I was busy trying to catch some sweets.
Jack and the Beanstalk is on until 6 January 2018 at the Lyric Hammersmith. Click here for more details.