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Jack and the Beanstalk at Cambridge Arts Theatre: Masterclass of pantomime fun all the way from Amarillo

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Jack and the Beanstalk
Jack and the Beanstalk

Paul Kirkley and son George head to Cambridge Arts Theatre to catch up with some familiar faces – and new stars – in this year’s panto, Jack and the Beanstalk.

If you’re looking for a metaphor for Britain in 2017, then the story of a gullible boy who sells the family cow for a bag of gold, only to discover he’s been tricked into buying a handful of beans instead, is pretty much on-the-nose.

But, of course, we don’t go to the panto looking for metaphors about real life. We go looking for an escape from real life, and that’s exactly what Jack and the Beanstalk delivers – a glorious, silly, romantic, joyful two-and-a-half hours of escapist fantasy full of love, laughter, music and bogey jokes.

Seasoned Cambridge panto-goers will recognise all the usual beats that punctuate these shows year in, year out – and that’s absolutely not a complaint; on the contrary, there’d be a (very polite, Cambridge-style) riot if they missed any of them out. But this year there’s an added bit of sparkle in the form of veteran pop crooner Tony Christie as the King of Amarillo.

Not that – and I’m sure he won’t mind me saying this – Christie is any great shakes as an actor; it’s more the musical greatest hits package he brings with him. Avenues and Alleyways still sounds terrific (especially to those of us of a certain age who remember it as the theme to 70s TV caper The Protectors, starring Robert Vaughn).

But it’s a certain other song that inevitably gets the biggest response, with the audience enthusiastically joining in the “sha la la la la la la la [clap clap]” section throughout the show. A sun-scorched Texas country classic might seem an odd choice for a festive anthem, but it works brilliantly and, if he plays his cards right, I reckon Christie could get another 10 years of panto bookings out of it.

The rest of the principle cast is largely made up of returning Arts panto favourites (though Brit TV legend Liza Goddard is a twinkly new addition as Fairy Beansprout, while Alexandra Waite-Roberts joins as the winsome Princess Kate). These include Holly Easterbrook as a suitably hearty and earnest Jack, Robert Rees as the loveable Simple Simon and regular dance captain Tamsin January, whose years of hoofing are rewarded with a meatier (or should that be veggier?) role as Fairy Spinach.

It’s a hugely welcome return, too, for former Corrie star Stephen Beckett, who in recent years has proved himself the perfect boo-hiss panto villain. This year he’s Fleshcreep, who rocks a bit of a Child Catcher vibe, and made such an impression on one very young audience member she had to be carried out sobbing. Which I suppose is a testimonial, of sorts. (He also shows his RADA training with a really rather good soliloquy from Hamlet, which is not something you often see in panto.)

The undoubted star of the show, though, is Matt Crosby as Jack’s mother, Dame Daenerys Cersei Brienne Brioche Trott (one for the Throners in the audience, there). Tottering about the stage in a series of ever more outrageous outfits – including channeling the spirit of Bella Emberg in a Wonder Woman cossie (“Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Is it a woman?) – it’s a masterclass from soup to nuts.

When she’s not flirting outrageously with a luckless victim in the front row, Dame Trott runs Amarillo’s leading ice cream parlour, specialising in such flavours as baked beans and bogies (“I know you think it’s disgusting but it’s snot” etc). This also makes the perfect setting for the legendary “sloppy scene”, which Crosby once again throws himself into with such abandon he must be black and blue under those bloomers. (“13 years,” he mutters in a stage whisper – a reference to how long he’s been risking life and limb, like Buster Keaton in drag, for the delight of Cambridge panto audiences.)

Escapist fantasy it may be, but there’s no shortage of topical gags in Crosby and co-writer Al Morley’s witty script. “What did you expect?” sneers Fleshcreep at one point. “Lollipops and a soft Brexit?” He also calls Fairy Beansprout “Princess Snowflake”, and there are pointed digs at Theresa May, Jeremy Corbyn and, of course, Donald Trump. (Plus I had a salted caramel ice cream in the interval; what could be more 2017 than that?)

Most of the jokes, though, are of the traditional, Christmas cracker variety, my favourite of a strong bunch being one about a Belgian kiss (“Like a French kiss, but more Flemish”). No? Suit youselves.

The songs are a similar mix of timeless classics (What a Feeling, I’m So Excited) and contemporary hits, including a surprisingly effective take on Ed Sheeran’s Thinking Out Loud, and a simply hilarious recreation of Taylor Swift’s Look What You Made Me Do video by Fleshcreep and his dancing henchmen.

Amid all the hilarity, it can be easy to forget that, for children, pantomime is also a serious business – something in which they fully emotionally invest. In the case of Jack and the Beanstalk, the message is one of self-belief: Jack doesn’t think he can be a hero, until he learns that “wonderful things will happen to those who believe”. (Which, of course, is nonsense. But kids don’t need to know that yet, do they?)

When he’s eventually revealed in all his booming, bad-tempered glory, the giant at the top of the beanstalk proves to be an impressively towering ogre who lives up to the hype, and calling him Gog Magog adds a nice touch of local colour. (There are plenty of Cambridge-centric gags, too, including one about where Daisy the Cow buys her books. I’ll leave you to work that one out for yourselves.)

Having teased us throughout the evening, the writers wisely keep their powder dry and save the full rendition of Is This the Way to Amarillo? for the big finalé. The ultimate showstopper, it does not disappoint.

And it’s with those la la las and clap-claps ringing in our ears that we turn back out into the night, and the chill winds of real life. Here’s hoping our own magic beans turn out to be just as fruitful. And if they don’t… well, there’s always next year’s panto to look forward to.

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