Venue: Grand Opera House, Belfast
Any attempt on a radical new version of the centuries-old tale of Jack the Giant-Killer is something akin to reinventing the wheel. In its latterday reincarnation as Jack and the Beanstalk, the clash between an immense, insatiable cannibal and a gormless country boy has gone through many and varied stage presentations.
In recent years, for all their high octane glitz, glamour and celebrity names, the pantomimes at Belfast’s Grand Opera House have come to feel formulaic, with local regulars like May McFettridge and Paddy Jenkins appearing to be operating on automatic pilot.
This year, new director Andrew Wright has, refreshingly, gone back to basics. As befits a Qdos show, production values are sky high but the humour is gentler, the costumes dazzling with picture-book charm rather than gaudy sequins and the pop-up set changes framed in beautifully painted backdrops.
Folksy visuals combine with 21st century stage technology and Mark Dougherty’s snappy live score. McFettridge’s reinvigorated Dame May, Jenkins’s Farmer Trott and Rikki Jay’s simple Simon create merry hell with tongue-twisting tussles, madcap mistaken identities and jokes involving wee-wee and farts, while David Bedella’s beetle-browed Fleshcreep lines up in sinister opposition to Joanna O’Hare’s Mother Nature, statuesque in shimmering green.
The insipid, instantaneous love affair between Michael Pickering’s Jack and Georgia Lennon’s Princess Apricot is considerably less interesting than the terrifying lurking presence of the voracious Blunderbore, whose massive, beady-eyed presence invades the second act. A troupe of expressive farmyard animals, led by doomed bovine Belle, lends a sweet contrast as well as a moment of bizarre comedy as May enters, stage right, perched perilously aboard a giant hen.
The interval is signalled by May taking off in a helicopter over the heads of the audience on a rescue mission to the top of the beanstalk. And to keep us on our toes, a pair of Italian roller-blading acrobats perform a death defying sequence, which adds little to the narrative but whose sheer daring takes the breath away.
Runs until 13 January.
Edited versions of this review were published in The Stage and the Irish Times.