There’s a tangible feeling of jovial warmth in the Oldham Coliseum for their Christmas pantomime, proudly described as “renowned” and “a huge part of Christmas” for locals. It’s not difficult to see why, as their production of Jack and the Beanstalk this year abundantly exudes the buoyant enthusiasm it’s desperate for the audience to share. Although it often dashes too far up the beanstalk where it loses its head in the clouds, its bright appeal encourages every family to merrily journey up there with them by the end.
Following the classic fairytale, Jack is forced to sell his beloved cow to avoid eviction from his cottage. Instead of money, though, he accepts some magic beans which sprout into a beanstalk, leading to the lair of a fearsome giant and his wife. It’s given a quirky edge by the modern updates of writers Fine Time Fontayne and Chris Lawson: Jack is paired with heroine Jill, his cow is a vegan who produces ‘psychedelic treats’ from its rainbow-coloured udders, and the giant’s fly-tipping wife steals children’s electronics to melt down into the golden egg.
More traditionally, it dutifully features all the usual panto rituals of audience participation. Some of its humour, however, is surprisingly close-to-the-mark for a family show, reeling off all manner of euphemisms for the female anatomy. This reflects its occasional lapse of restraint and control.
The best pantos, like musicals, find a harmonious balance between story and spectacle. This show takes a little too long to establish the setup and its disjointed plotting is too diluted by music, dance and comic sequences to maintain a consistently engaging momentum. Its 15 songs seem undeniably excessive, as do the swathes of padding and some unforgivable puns.
The delight of the show comes from the tirelessly hard-working cast. Sam Glen’s visibly sweat-soaked face is evidence of his relentless energy as Jack, jumping around the stage and fist-pumping the air as he enlists us in his army of helpers. He’s nicely complemented by the mellow sweet charm of Shorelle Hepkin’s Jill, and especially Mitesh Soni’s absurdly amusing performance as Hazy the Hippy Cow. Richard J Fletcher also makes an enjoyable Dame debut: witty and camp, his lines laced with innuendo and sass, yet still managing to control the boisterous audience. The musical numbers are given a sense of scale by a polished and confident ensemble of young dancers.
Further vibrance is provided by Celia Perkins’ colourful, Dr. Seuss-inflected design with its 2D storybook illustrations. The audience is also treated to some well-executed special effects which supply the magic, particularly the reveal of the beanstalk and a giant robot. It’s a shame that alongside this technical quality, the battle the actors really face is not defeating the giant, but overcoming the muffling acoustics and disproportionately loud music which obscure much of their vocals.
For another year though, the Oldham Coliseum has honoured the reputation of its annual tradition. It’s an early Christmas present which children and their families will enjoy, but calming down on the wild magic beans might make it grow it into something a little more special.
Jack and the Beanstalk is playing at Oldham Coliseum Theatre until 11 January. For more information and tickets, visit the Oldham Coliseum Theatre website.