York Stage in Jack And The Beanstalk, John Cooper Studio, Theatre @41 Monkgate, York, until January 3 2021. Box office: yorkstagepanto.com
THIS is a York pantomime season like none before.
York Theatre Royal has, like a council politician, taken to the wards seeking votes, in this case for the audience choice of Travelling Pantomime. Dame Berwick Kaler’s comeback on board Dick Turpin Rides Again, after his headline-making crosstown transfer to the Grand Opera House, has gone into Covid-enforced hibernation for a year. Likewise, Rowntree Players have taken the winter off.
Yet, what’s this? A newcomer bean-sprouting up at Theatre @41 Monkgate, courtesy of York Stage’s debut pantomime, Jack And The Beanstalk, a show stuffed with West End talent with York and wider Yorkshire roots, bedding in nicely with socially-distanced performances for maximum audiences of 55 at the Covid-secure heart of Monkgateshire.
Once temperature tested at the doors and hands cleansed, you are led up the beanstalk-clad stairway to your brightly-coloured seat in the John Cooper Studio, a black-box theatre here configured as a traverse stage, the bubble-compliant audience sitting to either side or upstairs on the mezzanine level.
Safety division comes in the form of screens, like on Have I Got News For You, giving a different Perspextive on watching a show, but in no way impeding the view. Actors are socially distanced – they exchange elbow greetings; romance is replaced by best friendships – and audience members are close to the stage in this intimate setting, but not too close. The dame does not dispense sweets and we are asked to refrain from shouting.
Not your normal panto, then, in this all-too abnormal year, except that writer-director Nik Briggs’s 2020 vision for pantomime still has all the elements: the song and dance; the puns and punchlines; the slapstick and the transformation scene; the dame (Alex Weatherhill) and Daisy the cow; the drama-queen baddie (Ian Stroughair) and his narcissism; the topical and the local references; the daft wannabe superhero dreamer (Jordan Fox) and the fairy (Livvy Evans); the principal girl (May Tether) and her plain-speaking principles.
Then add the all-action ensemble (Matthew Ives, Danielle Mullan and Emily Taylor) and the band, a trio of musical director Jessica Douglas, fellow keyboard player Sam Johnson and York’s premier league drummer, Clark Howard, parked upstairs but omnipresent and on the button, The Great British Bake Off theme tune et al.
Briggs has called his show “a musical with pantomime braces on”; his choreographer, Gary Lloyd, a big signing from the West End and tour circuit, has coined the term “pansical”. That may suggest a slightly awkward new hybrid, but like the cult rock’n’roll pantomime at Leeds City Varieties, the musical driving force here is a winning addition to the tradition.
Ninety minutes straight through – intervals are so last year – Jack And The Beanstalk is full of beans, lovely to look at and lively too, loud at times but rarely lewd (blame the dame for those “innocent but guilty” moments, met with knowing laughter).
Surprise celebrity cameos pop up on video, and York Mix Radio’s morning team of Ben Fry and Laura Castle provide the pre-recorded countdown chat pre-show.
Briggs is breaking his duck as a pantomime writer, and his script is a little mannered by comparison with the highly experienced Paul Hendy’s way with words for the Travelling Pantomime, but he does know the notes, he does play them in the right order, and the jokes invariably hit home, especially those that play on the Covid conventions of 2020.
His reinvention of the pantomime cow is a particular joy, even if the dame’s nutty slapstick routine is hampered by having to play safe.
Briggs’s characters, bold and playful and bright, will appeal to children and adults alike. The singing is the ace card. What voices, whether Weatherhill’s operatic entry; professional debutante Tether’s arrival as Yorkshire’s next Sheridan Smith with her gift for investing personality in every line or the appealing Fox’s top-notch prowess in big numbers and ballads alike.
Evans’s Fairy Mary is fun and feisty, especially in her battles with Stroughair’s long-fingered, stove-pipe top-hatted Flesh Creep, commanding the stage with that irrepressible swagger and spectacular singing we know from his drag diva, Velma Celli.
You will never have a better chance to see Gary Lloyd’s flamboyant, fab-u-lous choreography so close up it is almost personal, dazzlingly pretty in the transformation scene, bouncing madly on and off trampolines in Stroughair’s high point, Jump (the Van Halen anthem).
Bean there, done that? Not until you have seen this new brand of York pantomime.
Review by BARSTOW TEASDALE. Copyright of The Press, York