Jack and the Beanstalk, written by Joel Horwood. Lyric Hammersmith. London. 20 December 2017.
As autumn rolls around, the days in London are becoming and shorter (and wetter) again, good Brits everywhere are gearing up for this year’s Christmas cake preparations, and professional theatres and amdram groups around the nation are getting ready to release marketing materials for the annual panto production. Along with the fact that Brits store their Christmas pudding for over a year before consumption, the ongoing tradition of the Christmas panto was one of the more peculiar customs to encounter as a German living in the UK.
Unlike in the UK, German Christmas is a solemn affair. While the pre-holiday season has Christmas markets, Glühwein and Lebkuchen (a version of gingerbread far superior to the British variety), the actual festivities are not known for their frivolity and whimsy. The “celebration,” a family-only event, runs for three days and is not marked by excessive sociability: the music is festive, yet somber, the food is rich, though adequately portioned, and there’s drink, but never too much. Considering all the real candles that decorate the tree the latter would certainly border on recklessness. As far as theatrical entertainment goes, the only Christmas specific traditions are the nativities staged at local churches and primary schools, along with the Weihnachtsmärchen, the obligatory children’s seasonal production staged at communal theatres across Germany, often based on popular children’s novels or films. Adults in the mood for some holiday cheer usually revert movies from the Anglo-America market; amongst my group of friends Love Actually remains unsurpassed as the go-to Christmas comedy.
This is all to say that there’s no German equivalent of the Christmas pantomime, no form with such a deeply rooted performance history. The Weihnachtsmärchen might fit the same bill as a theatrical occasion designed largely to make children feel comfortable going to the theatre, but a panto, an event that manages to captivate all age groups, it is not. Consequently, when I saw Jack and the Beanstalk at the Lyric Hammersmith in December 2017, it was only my second panto experience, and considering that most spectators were under the age of ten, I had quite some catching up to do.
My first panto encounter, Mother Goose at Wilton’s Music Hall, which I saw the previous year shortly after moving to the UK, had already succeeded in making me realize that Christmas in the UK had a different vibe than in Germany. However, it was Jack and the Beanstalk and its effortless merging of traditional performance style with present-day looks and contemporary message that made me appreciate pantomime as a contemporary form.
In a way, Jack and the Beanstalk has it all: blindingly bright colours, crazily inventive sets, cheerful costumes that make Dame Lotte Trottalot (Kraig Thornier), the infamous pantomime dame, steal the show, an ethnically diverse cast, music that is largely current pop-song adaptations, a woke political message, an abundance of garden vegetable puns, and, for good measure, a sprinkling of Caryl Churchill references and other theatrical in-jokes.
Written by Joel Horwood and directed by Jude Christian and Sean Holmes, Jack and the Beanstalk tells the story of Jack, casually gender-swapped and delightfully played by Faith Omole, her mother, Lotte Trottalot, and their cow Daisy (Kayla Meikle). These three try to comply with villain Squire Fleshcreep’s rising demands in rent money, a sentiment that struck a chord with the local audience. Even though Jack has been able to grow three carrots in Ye Olde Hammersmith this year, Fleshcreep’s cunning and her soft heart soon leave her without any resources to pay their farm’s yearly rent. Fleshcreep, played by the fantastically villainous Vikki Stone, is a thinly veiled allegory for shameless opportunism and gentrification, and his gleeful rendition of “I´m in love with your money”—an apt cover of Ed Sheeran’s “Shape of You” is topped only by his scene-stealing woodwind solos.
The counterbalance to Jack’s assertive optimism is brought by Fleshcreep’s son Jill (Daniel Fraser). Having grown up in an overly sheltered environment, Jill is ignorant of his father’s exploits and harbors a pretentious ambition to become a thespian. He falls for Jack when she comes to the mansion to ask his father for a payment extension. His dramatic declamations and emotional fragility are beautifully complemented by his teddy bear jacket. Sewn together from at least thirty stuffed toys, this safety blanket turned fashion statement is the ultimate parody of millennial sensitivities. In what I understand is a good panto tradition, these two are made for each other. But, refreshingly, when Jack eventually climbs the beanstalk, she does not need him to be her savior, and when he finally revolts against his father, he doesn’t need her to fight his battle for him.
Of course, Fleshcreep denies them the extension and Jack and Lotte Trottalott have no choice but to resort to milking Daisy the Cow. Daisy does not like to be milked, and who can blame her given the monstrous machine she needs to be strapped into for the process. Of course, the scene results in all three (and the first row of the audience) are soaked in ‘milk’ splashing across the stage in a perfect slosh scene.
After the unsuccessful milking, Jack has no choice but to sell Daisy. On the way to the market, she is inevitably tricked by Fleshcreep exchanging Daisy for three magic beans. A believer in the impossible, Jack places all her hopes in her haul. As is well known; she plants the beans, climbs up the enormous stalk, meets and eventually defeats the giant and his golden-egg laying duck. Order is restored, Fleshcreep has a moral epiphany, and they all live happily ever after.
Remarkably, this panto does not fall into the traps of casual sexism that the genre can be so vulnerable to. When Dame Trottalott presents sexual innuendo, it’s done slyly and not in the usual over-the-top panto style, which deserves a nod. The ‘white knight saves the day’ narrative is cleverly hinted to but ultimately abandoned: the white middle-aged man plucked from the audience is not there to slay the giant but to play the reformed (and shrunken) titan, and it falls to a child to save the cast by cutting down the beanstalk.
The Lyric’s pantomime is magical, but the magic it prompts us to believe in is not in the special effects, though those are brilliantly done. It is in the community of theatre. This begins with the interactions between the audience and the actors, the multiple opportunities for sing-alongs, the throwing of sweets, and well-worn audience call and response gestures, but it extends beyond that. The ensemble is chosen from the Lyric’s youth ensemble, who go to great lengths to keep the energy up throughout the evening, and the profits from the donations go to local youth initiatives within the theatre. There’s a decidedly homegrown and warmly inclusive spirit to this panto, which above all celebrates Hammersmith itself. Theatrical magic, the production suggests, emerges out of collaboration, and even a panto-novice like me can get behind that.
Breaking the norms of silent spectatorship might be a challenge for the rule-abiding nation of Germany at first, but the overt jokes, the slapstick humor, and the well-known stories might just make panto the export alternative to marmalade and digestive biscuits the Tories have been looking for. After all, it is about time the English reciprocated for the tradition of the Christmas tree.
A version of this review has been published at Platform: Journal of Theatre and Performing Art. Platform is a peer-reviewed journal published out of Royal Holloway, University of London and has been devoted to publishing the work of postgraduates, postdoctoral researchers, and entry-level academics in fields related to theatre and the performing arts for 13 years.
This post was written by the author in their personal capacity.The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of The Theatre Times, their staff or collaborators.