16 November 2019.
A booming giant-voiced announcement signals the start of the show, “Fee Fi Fo Fum, put your phone away and sit on your bum”.
Mobile ringtones wouldn’t have been a worry for the cast of Oldham Coliseum’s first pantomime way back in 1887. Times have changed but over 130 years later the theatre’s annual family-friendly show is still going strong, and Chris Lawson’s production is cheerfully determined to keep it fresh and relevant.
So there’s still a cow, and magic beans, and a beanstalk, and a golden egg but this Jack and the Beanstalk has had a welcome reboot. Jack and his mother have their usual money worries, but their neighbours are falling victim to a mysterious crime wave as smartphones, laptops, Xboxes and high tech TVs all keep disappearing. Magicked away up into their Cloud Computer Lair, by the dastardly duo of Mavis Moorside and her Giant husband, all this byte-packed booty (“more electrical goods than Cash Convertors“) will be used to power up their plans to take over the world.
Now if you’re not following the science behind all of this, don’t worry, because this is pantomime and we’re here to enjoy ourselves not sweat over algorithms. It begins with a bang and a flash of light, and then the whole show goes off like a fun-fuelled rocket. There’s no let-up as the singing, dancing, jokes and slapstick keep on coming.
At its heart are Jack and his best friend Jill and, as the good-natured pair, Sam Glen and Shorelle Hepkin look like they are having the time of their lives. Their joyful energy is infectious, keeping everything bubbling along. Alongside them, making his debut as a Dame, Richard J Fletcher’s Dotty Trott has a spring in his step, a cheeky twinkle in his eye and a wicked line in ad-libs.
Mitesh Soni is very funny as the laid-back spaced-out Hazy the Hippy Cow (“keep calm and moo-didate“) and the diminutive giant Malcolm. While Jenny Platt deftly manages some quick costume and character changes as both tech-snaffling Mavis and her much nicer sister the Good Fairy Greenfield, as well as delivering a couple of standout musical numbers.
Oldham’s pantomime has a unique element that you’d struggle to replicate elsewhere – its audience. The Coliseum makes much of how embedded their pantomimes are within the town’s traditional Christmas celebrations, and they’re not exaggerating. Their audience members are up for it from the word ‘go’, and they don’t need any heavy-handed encouragement or entreaties to get involved, it’s quite something to experience a group of theatre-goers whole-heartedly committed to enjoying themselves and joining in so enthusiastically with the performance.
Fine Time Fontayne and Chris Lawson’s script is tightly packed with silly jokes, groan-worthy puns and endless crowd-pleasing local references, but it also makes a few timely points amongst the hilarity. They might (spoiler alert) chop down a beanstalk but, with an upcycled magic wand, a zero-carbon footprint honeymoon and a vegan cow in the mix, the pantomime’s characters are very eco-friendly. In a similar vein, among all the Moorsides’ misdemeanours, it’s their littering and flytipping that marks them out as real villains. And in another nice touch, Jack’s name might be on the poster but girl power reigns as Jill leads the way up the beanstalk to save the day.
Designer Celia Perkins gift-wraps the show with a keen eye for detail. The backdrop, set and curtain are like beautifully illustrated pages from a children’s book, while the costumes are an eye-boggling clash of buttons, checks, dots, stripes, waistcoats and puff sleeves. The pantomime’s villains might be in danger of stealing the limelight with their stylish steampunk influenced attire if it wasn’t for Dame Dotty Trott’s OTT wardrobe – which includes such delights such as a unicorn-themed onesie, a shiny goldfish-bowl-topped spacesuit, and an Oldham Athletic inspired frock complete with a meat pie and sausage roll head-piece.
Taking a break apparently from their “gigs at the Toby Carvery”, Dave Bintley’s live band add oomph to the musical performances, and a troupe of skilful young dancers help to bring an element of visual spectacle to proceedings. Musically it covers a lot of bases, from Sondheim to Madness, and the Ghostbusters’ theme to Lil Nas X’s Old Town Road – but the wildly eclectic something-for-everyone approach somehow works just fine, well-suited to the cross-generational audience.
If I was being hyper-critical (don’t BOO HISS at me…), I’d have liked to have seen a bit more of Mitesh Soni (his comic skills feel slightly under-utilised), and the flow of the second half needs a bit of tinkering with, but there’s nothing seriously amiss.
In all honesty, having not been to a pantomime since I was a young child, I was apprehensive about what to expect. I needn’t have worried. Exuberant, feel-good and fun, Jack and the Beanstalk warmed my cynical heart.
Images by Darren Robinson