Review: The Oxford Playhouse's pantomime Jack and the Beanstalk, written by Jack Counsel, and directed by Toby Hulse. From 24 Nov - 7 Jan2024. Tickets from £10. Book here.
[Disclosure: Our reviewer received free tickets, free drinks, and a free programme for the purposes of this review.]
Every year, the Oxford Playhouse invests a huge amount of talent, energy, and creativity into its pantomime, and this year’s show is no exception.
In the OP’s version of Jack and the Beanstalk, a series of mysterious robberies rock Jack’s community. For reasons I didn’t really follow, the giant is suspected as the culprit. Jill, Jack’s love interest, becomes an amateur detective to try and track down all the missing stuff. Unbeknownst to Jack and his friends – but known to the audience – the robber is not the giant, but the giant’s younger brother, Hendrix the Horrible; a kind of Ozzy Osbourne/Alice Cooper wannabe.
While no-one expects meticulous plotting in a panto – I did think that this year’s offering was particularly bonkers. Quite a few inexplicably random things happen – for example – in the middle of the show – two blue glitter onesie clad people come out and do a slightly bewildering serious contemporary dance duet. Pretty to look at, but mystifying.
Image of Harry Jack and Mared Lewis, taken from the programme.
Later in the performance, one of the dancers takes centre stage for a singing solo. She sings beautifully, but again, I didn’t know who she was. It’s only later that she’s introduced as a named character (unless I missed it).
But this is the joy of panto – the more bonkers, bright and bedazzling the better!
A few things did give me pause. The giant, a George Bush senior look alike with the heart of David Attenborough – randomly spouts environmental slogans. He’s being serious. So when he tells us to look after the planet, the gravity of this message feels like a disconnect with all the random wackiness that’s going on.
Similarly, the characters of Jack and Jill are played pretty straight, but Jack’s sister, Susan, is played as a cross between Charlie Chaplin, and Laurel and Hardy. The actor has Charlie Chaplin’s walk down pat. But I did wonder why the only character (other than the giant) who cares about social issues (slogan t-shirt and badges) – is also the only one of the young people who are portrayed with the exaggerated physical humour of a classic slap-stick character. Are we laughing with her, or at her ridiculousness.
Heather Porte as Susan, Jack's sister.
In the end, it’s not that deep.
One character who is beautifully and unambiguously classic panto was the Widow Twanky character – Dame Mary in this iteration, played by the brilliant and reliable Alasdair Buchan. Buchan is an extraordinarily versatile talent, and his over the top and gleeful performance really carried the show.
Alasdair Buchan as Dame Mary
Another fabulous performance that got better as the show went on was Robin Hemmings, who played the baddie Hendrix the Horrible. Hemming’s performance was entertaining to watch, genuinely hilarious, and his improvised asides to the audience, particularly the overexcited little ones, were wonderful. As always with the OP panto, the music was absolutely extraordinary; the live band was first rate and pulled the entire show together.
Robin Hemmings as Hendrix the Horrible and Max Guest as Jack.
I attended the opening night, so I suspect that some of the glitches in the production will be ironed out quickly – particularly the volume balance between Jack and Jill during their duets.
Madison Swan as Fairy Foxglove
I also hope that the OP buys more sweeties to throw into the audience. It felt a little like the cost of living crisis had arrived at panto with a paucity of sweets thrown, as compared with last year – leaving a lot of little ones a bit disappointed. Similarly, I hope that the birthday shout outs are moved to the start of the show instead of the end – to rev the audience up and so that those mentioned will be able to feel special and excited for the whole show.
Dumile Sibanda as Jill, with the young ensemble cast.
This year’s OP panto is full of colour and great music, and is a reliable and fun night out for the whole family.
If you enjoyed reading about this panto, you might enjoy reading our other panto posts, which you can find here.
All photos provided to me by the Oxford Playhouse and taken by Geraint Lewis. Feature illustration by Korky Paul for the Oxford Playhouse.