REVIEW: York Theatre Royal’s Travelling Pantomime, Jack And The Beanstalk, New Earswick Folk Hall, York, 5/12/2020
NO Rolling Stones show goes by without rock’n’roll’s greatest paleontological survivor, Keith Richards, leaning into his microphone to mumble: “It’s good to be here…it’s good to be anywhere”.
Lo and behold, “It’s great to be here…it’s kind of great to be anywhere,” says York Theatre Royal Travelling Pantomime’s comic turn, Josh “Just Joshing” Benson, at the outset of Saturday evening’s Covid-secure, socially distanced, temperature-tested, bubble-seated pantomime.
How right he is. Saturday was day four of the new dawn of the York Theatre Royal pantomime, the first after 40 years in the wildness of the Dame Berwick Kaler era. Until Covid-19 became the joyless new villain, out to destroy the land of theatre, Cinderella was to have marked the transition from Kaler capers to a new partnership with regular Great British Pantomime Award winners Evolution Productions.
When invitations to the ball turned to cinders, chief executive Tom Bird, creative director Juliet Forster and Evolution writer-director Paul Hendy decided to tear up the script and compose three new ones instead to take the panto to the people.
Hence it is indeed great to be here, there and everywhere, because, while the Theatre Royal main stage awaits resuscitation in 2021, the Travelling Pantomime will definitely be pitching up at 16 of York’s 21 wards, possibly more if Covid-safe passage can yet be guaranteed to others. At least four more shows are being lined up for after Christmas and a recording of the second-night preview will be made available for streaming soon too.
On Saturday, New Earswick Folk Hall was transformed into a theatre for the first time, creating an impromptu stage with Hannah Sibai’s red-curtained, green-framed travelling theatre frontage and a traditional pantomime backdrop.
Everything is slimmed down – a cast of five, no ensemble, no live band, no interval, no panto cow, but less just means being more inventive and cramming so much into what we are told will be an hour but stretches gladly well beyond.
Edinburgh Fringe shows work to tight running times, and quality, not quantity, rules here too. To Paul Hendy, that means bottling up the “the essence of panto” and right now, in Covid-19 2020, that essence is Joy.
Once we are introduced not just to Just Josh’s rubber-bodied comic, but also Robin Simpson’s classic dame, Faye Campbell’s modern hero, super-tall Reuben Johnson’s villain and Anna Soden’s trumpet/guitar/bass-playing fairy, we must vote for our choice of show: Dick Whittington, Jack And The Beanstalk or Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs. Seven dwarves, note; there is a knock-out joke a’coming.
Jack won out on Saturday: Josh becoming, well, Josh, with the daftest streak of blond in his hair since Kevin Petersen pummelled 158 against Australia with a skunk plonked on his bonce in 2005. He is a lovably daft ball of energy, cheeky but not saucy, and if he kept his magic tricks up his sleeve this time, what an asset for the future.
Simpson, on loan from Huddersfield’s Lawrence Batley Theatre, is the penniless but pun-full, mirthful Dame Trott, reaching for both a cuppa and the gin; Johnson, all in black with a dash of red to match his Russian accent, is a Flesh Creep with an amusingly dismissive air and a mischievous hint of Borat.
Campbell’s Jack must fight the old prejudices against girls being fit for purpose for heroic tasks while keeping the name Jack. Soden’s rapping, funky, blue and pink-haired Fairy is more likely to hit the bass line than wave a wand, as flashy as her lit-up boots.
Juliet Forster directs with momentum, brio and thrills rather than frills, complemented by Hayley Del Harrison’s fun, compact choreography and musical director James Harrison’s rapid-fire bursts of high-energy songs.
Yes, there is a beanstalk and a Giant called Pundemic. Above all, York Theatre Royal have hit the jackpot with Paul Hendy’s script-writing prowess, love of a double-act routine and a knowingly contrived, convoluted path to a pay-off line.
He handles the pandemic crisis with a success rate to make the Government jealous, throwing in topical references galore with witty, often unpredictable Pandemime punchlines, but nothing insensitive in such traumatic times.
A magazine title slapstick to-and-fro between Benson and Simpson is already a contender for panto scene of the year, and if there are jokes for adults, Hendy favours a Gilbert O’Sullivan song title, rather than adult material or in-jokes.
Pantomime 1, Pandemic 0, the Travelling Pantomime triumphs on its already sold-out run to December 23. Hendy will be back next winter for the full Evolution to roll out; Benson is due to return to the Victoria Theatre panto in Halifax next Christmas, alas, but his Theatre Royal day will surely come, even if he can’t magic his way out of that one.
Review by Charles Hutchinson