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Panto review: Jack and the Beanstalk at Harlow Playhouse

Anyone going to a panto expects three things: visual spectacle, family entertainment and audience engagement. And while the script of this year’s offering at the Harlow Playhouse, Jack and the Beanstalk, steered clear of “It’s behind you!” it certainly delivered and the audience were well up for participating.

What the team at Harlow always do is treat them as friends from the off, with the occasional breaking of the fourth wall to let slip a few backstage secrets, which creates a great sense of camaraderie between performers and audience.

We attended opening night and there was high slapstick – there were a couple of moments where you weren’t 100% sure if the errors were choreographed. What’s clear is the good nature between the cast, all of whom worked their socks off.

Jack and the Beanstalk (23354510)
Jack and the Beanstalk (23354510)

There has been a bit of backlash in latter years about the relevance of panto with its cross-dressing and lack of roles for women, but I felt this year’s script has a bit more equality. Without giving away any spoilers, it’s not the hero Jack who saves the day from the evil baddie Baroness played by Laura Darton (what is it about panto villains that they have to have those high collars?).

Baroness Blunderbore mwahaha-ed to wicked effect and caused all the relevant boos and hisses throughout. Daisy the Cow (Rachel Rawlinson) sang her heart out. And the good fairy Sprite (Lizzie Ottley) was playful and fun, complete with glowing shoes much coveted by my five-year-old twins.

Jack and Jill played their romantic leads with strong singing. All the children, who were farm animals, did their dance and drama schools proud with excellent and super-smiley performances.

Dame Trott (Jimmy Burton-Iles) and Silly Billy (Ben Parsley) in Jack and the Beanstalk (23354490)
Dame Trott (Jimmy Burton-Iles) and Silly Billy (Ben Parsley) in Jack and the Beanstalk (23354490)

Nevertheless, the core of the show was the comedy double act between Silly Billy (Ben Parsley) and Dame Trott, played by the hilarious Jimmy Burton-Iles, whose dry delivery and “My darlings” caused shrieks of laughter. I lost count of Dame Trott’s costume changes, which varied from Premier League football, Star Wars, a rose garden, a takeaway theme, a circus, as well as the traditional farm outfit to the finale showstopper.

The attention to detail in the staging and props meant that the beanstalk and the giant himself were cleverly done. And my 14-year-old guest particularly loved the airline scene: choreography from the professional dancers with wheelie bags – brilliant! Credit must go to the professional dancers, who worked hard, including being on pointe in the dark.

My twins were torn as to their favourite part of the panto: one loved the custard pies (slapstick at its finest in a fab Twelve Days of Christmas number) and my other daughter loved the intimacy created by the way the cast used the whole theatre: "Mummy, the fairy pointed at ME!” The way the cast were in and out of the aisles among the audience made it feel like a really big production.

What I love about Harlow’s panto is how unashamedly bright it always is – if you want a double entendre, they’ll give you one. My favourite line from the naughty Dame was "I’m like a rambling rose – no good in a bed but great up against a wall."

Jack and the Beanstalk (23354531)
Jack and the Beanstalk (23354531)

With a range of feelgood songs – which span the decades from Petula Clark’s Colour My World and The Monkees' I’m A Believer right up to The Greatest Showman favourites – slapstick, fabulous scenery and creative costumes, it’s a musical and visual experience to rival a tin of Quality Street: shiny and sweet with something for everyone.

Panto top tip: This is a value-packed show, and although it starts at 7pm, once you include the interval it’s a late finish. Mine fell asleep in the car on the way home, so if you have smaller children, opt for a matinee.

* Jack and the Beanstalk continues at the Harlow Playhouse. There are 46 performances from this Friday (December 6) until the curtain comes down on Sunday January 5. Visit the website for details of dates, show times and ticket prices.

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