Pantomime Paradise! That must be the accolade for yet another triumphant Christmas production at the New Wimbledon Theatre, that grand old edifice built at the end of the Edwardian Era. In those ornate surroundings, there is a suitably lavish feast in store for the eyes and ears, with colourful costumes, dazzling choreography, inventive sets, great sound effects, nice songs, and an excellent band to back them up. There is a spectacular sequence that has to be viewed through 3D glasses, and the audience were certainly not expecting the helicopter that suddenly hovered above them!
What’s not to like? For the children, there is clowning and slapstick, with the traditional antiphony of “Oh yes, he is” answered by “Oh no, he isn’t!”, and the traditional warning from the audience, “Look behind you!”. There is a lovable cow, with the front and back end propelled by unseen ‘ghosts in the machine’. Sweets are tossed to the eager youngsters, who were clearly loving the whole thing.
For the adults, there are topical references, such as Theresa May and her Brexit woes. There is also the traditional smut and innuendo, strictly for the adults (one hopes the children would not have got those jokes, anyway).
The origins of pantomime go back thousands of years to the world of Classical Antiquity, and many features, such as bawdiness and slapstick, survive in the modern form. Such modern concerns as gender transition are part and parcel of the pantomime tradition, with the Principal Boy being a girl and the Dame being a man, although in this production the eponymous Jack is played by a man. Another traditional feature is the good fairy, here the Spirit of the Beans, who talks in rhyming couplets.
The modern pantomime has only a small repertoire of stories from which it normally selects, and Jack and the Beanstalk has been performed at many London theatres in the past. But the basic story can be adapted in all sorts of different ways, and new characters can be introduced. This version dates back to 2007, and here we have a fine array of characters, old and new.
Clive Rowe is outstanding as the Dame, being not only a great trouper but a great singer, as indeed are several other members of the cast. Well-known pop songs are belted out, while the ensemble dancers twirl around, supplemented by the budding talents of the South London Dance School. But it is the outsize personality of Al Murray, the pub landlord with the credo of White Van Man, that holds the audience in its sway. His is a role new to Jack and the Beanstalk, slotted in as Jack’s brother, and he strikes up a great rapport with the audience, some of whom he picks on. But they take it in good part!
If I could pick just one scene that was really captivating, it must be the 3D sequence after the interval, when Jack has just climbed to the top of the beanstalk with his brother and Dame Trot and enters the castle of Giant Blunderbore. Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum, this is a b****y good show!