Corn Exchange Theatre Review

Jack & the Beanstalk: Noda Review

Wednesday, February 15th, 2023    Reviewed by:Andrew Walter, NODA Regional Representative, London District 12

I am grateful to Val Kent for inviting me to report on The Sinodun Players’ production of “Jack and the Beanstalk”. Val herself greeted me in the foyer, and provided me with an attractive and comprehensive programme. I really like the fact that the Sinodun Players’ programmes include interesting details about the more technical aspects of the production (in this case about the design and the wardrobe), and give proper recognition to the army of volunteers required to bring a show like this to the stage. Full details of NODA’s poster and programme awards are published on the Association’s web site.

There is nothing quite like a traditional family pantomime, and once again The Sinodun Players demonstrated why this is such an enduring and popular art form. The theatre was almost full for a Wednesday evening presentation towards the end of the show’s two-and-a-half week run, and the production had something for everyone from the seniors like me to the enthusiastic pack of brownies at the front of the stalls. Audience participation was actively encouraged – early efforts at joining in attracted muted appreciation from the stage along the lines of “I think you can do better than that” – while the script provided a steady stream of groan-aloud puns and wordplay suitable for all ages.

The pantomime was a visual delight, with Mark Wood’s colourful settings boldly realised in the style of illustrated children’s books, and beautifully painted front cloths artfully concertinaed into the limited space above the stage. The bright and cheerful look was enhanced by the decision to have a pale stage floor, and by the quality of Mike Baker’s lighting design – the only flaw I noticed was a hard edge to one of the front of house lamps illuminating down stage right. The lighting effects for the dancing spirits were particularly good. The sound design, featuring lots of up-tempo songs, kept the atmosphere buzzing before, during and after the show.

Practically all the expected elements of a traditional pantomime were present and correct. Ginny Avery opened the show as the wicked witch Piccalilli, appropriately relishing the role of the pantomime villain and dominating stage left. Ginny had all the character ticks and tricks to make sure that her witch lived up to our expectations: she was full of misplaced confidence, quick to anger, and possessed of a scowl and an exultant cackle that drew the right sort of boos from the auditorium. Enter stage right the Sugar Dust fairy, played by Barbara Wood; a sort of benevolent ballerina, Barbara radiated goodness and left no-one in any doubt that we were in safe hands.

Laura Gow was back to play Jack, the principal boy; Laura understands the role of the principal boy very well, even if there was a frankly disappointing amount of thigh-slapping this year. Be that as it may, Laura gave us an understated hero, complete with assertive body language, confident demeanour, and a dash of vanity. Jack’s brother Simon was played by Fiona Huntingford-Ledger; Fiona is an experienced and accomplished pantomime performer who knows exactly how to engage an audience. She is always busy on stage, deals expertly with heckles and unexpected audience reactions, and has the enviable knack of catching everyone’s eye in a way that makes you feel as if she is sharing an aside with you personally. The singalong at the end of the show gave her the opportunity to demonstrate her fine singing voice, and her ability to marshal the small army of brownies and other youngsters who flooded onto the stage to join in.

Jack and Simon’s mother, Dame Dotty, was wonderfully portrayed by Tom Mackriell. Tom knows exactly how to characterise this role: optimistic, energetic and larger-than-life, with a challenging pout and an occasional adjustment of the bosom. Tom injected pace and excitement into every scene, and the slapstick baking was a highlight of the show, leavened with what sounded and felt like a few ad-libs aimed at Simon. The family-friendly presentation meant that there was refreshingly little innuendo in Dotty’s dialogue, although at one point she removed her dressing gown to a particularly raunchy version of “The Stripper” to reveal the words “Soggy Bottom” on her backside. This seemed to appeal equally to the innocent humour of the brownies and the generally older fans of “The Great British Bake Off”. Tom also used his strong singing voice to good effect.

Another impressive aspect of the production was the quality of the supporting cast. Will Lidbetter played Rancid, rat catcher and villainous sidekick, with gusto; every line was given full value, then underlined with some hunched body language and contemptuous facial expressions. Like Tom, Will was given ample opportunity to showcase his singing ability. Adam Brimley and Peter Smithson portrayed the comedy duo Snatchet and Scarper, who worry the residents of Windy Bottom by threatening to cut off their electricity, combining physical and verbal comedy to great effect. The scene in which they try to erect a local estate agent’s sign, with a series of deliciously ambiguous instructions resulting in a string of assaults with a padded mallet, worked really well, and I also liked their highly stylised running across the front of the stage.

Rebecca Cleverley and Graham Watt were very much in their element as Queen Apricot and King Crumble; Rebecca once again portrayed a tolerant consort, combining plenty of common sense with just a touch of hauteur, while Graham stepped up to the throne with enthusiasm, likeable but a bit out of touch, and with a surprising talent for tap dancing with a beaming smile that concealed whatever he might have been thinking. The royal couple was aided and abetted by David Simmons as their equerry Humphrey, the sort of servant who has outlived his usefulness but is impossible to get rid of. And of course the King and Queen introduce us to Princess Charlotte; the role of the pantomime princess is primarily to look pretty and sing sweetly as the character is rarely given any meaningful action or amusing lines, and Ellie Buckley fulfilled the brief very well.

The final three actors were largely concealed. Alex Watts imbued the giant’s lines with might and menace, even if it remained a bit of a mystery as to whether or not he was proud of his Scottish ancestry. Alex is quite an imposing figure, as was evident in the closing walk down, and it was perhaps a pity that we didn’t get to see him in character, possibly utilising digital projection. And then there was Buttermilk, Dame Dotty’s bovine pride and joy. Mark Field will forever be able to boast that he started his pantomime career at the bottom, and impressively maintained what must be a very uncomfortable posture on every appearance. Sarah Enticknap was at least able to stand up, and gave a masterclass in projecting thoughts and emotions through the slightest movements, such as an inclination of the head or an adjustment of the feet. Mark and Sarah also coped very well when they found themselves being fussed by a whole pack of brownies …

Local colour was provided by the chorus; their singing was enjoyable if perhaps a little lacking in energy, but their movement was well judged. The dancers similarly contributed to the spectacle with some carefully rehearsed sequences, choreographed by Virginia Chell; a consequence of inclusive troupes is a noticeable variation in ability, and not everyone could emulate the precision and pizazz of the best dancers. The Players’ Youth Group, “Encore”, provided three teams playing spirits and so forth: it’s fantastic that these young people have the opportunity to take part in such an impressive production, an experience that will surely stay with them for the rest of their lives and hopefully will encourage many of them into continuing involvement with theatre.

The three piece band, under the direction of Sue Huntingford-Ledger and Gaby Clements, powered their way through a wide variety of songs – no prizes for guessing which Neil Diamond number was prompted by Dotty producing a swede, a carrot and a lime. The musical numbers weren’t always able to match the slapstick and wordplay, but they were certainly sung accurately and the principals’ voices blended well. John Pinniger and his sound crew ensured that every word could be heard, while the design found room for lots of sound effects.

The costumes, under the leadership of Marilyn Johnstone, contributed hugely both to the characterisation and the spectacle; Dame Dotty’s wardrobe was a constant delight (I particularly liked the decorative use of mini milk bottles, and her hat in the bakery scene), and the principals’ costumes consistently matched the characterisations while maintaining a unified look in keeping with the overall design. The costumes were complemented by excellent makeup. Anna Gordon provided an eclectic collection of properties, the highlight being Simon’s rabbit hat with the moving ears – tremendous fun!

Above all, this was one of those productions where the whole added up to a great deal more than the sum of its parts, and credit for this must go to Director Erica Harley, aided and abetted by Producer Val Kent. “Jack and the Beanstalk” was a traditional pantomime for every generation, and if it flagged slightly in the second half, this was because it lost the drive of the narrative thread rather than any shortcomings in direction. The corridor scene with the giant rat, for example, added little to the story, but did allow the audience to shout “He’s behind you!” while the stage crew changed the scenery.

Staging a show like this involves dozens of volunteers giving freely of their time and talents, and while the highly capable cast catch the eye and take the plaudits, this is a highly impressive community effort. The smattering of references to South Oxfordshire villages was testament to this. I hope that everyone involved with this production feels proud of their efforts.

Andrew Walter
NODA Regional Representative, London District 12