Stars explained: * A production of no real merit with failings in all areas. ** A production showing evidence of not enough time or effort, or even talent, and which never breathes any real life into the piece – or a show lumbered with a terrible script. *** A good enjoyable show which might have some small flaws but has largely achieved what it set out to do.**** An excellent show which shows a great deal of work and stage craft with no noticeable or major flaws.***** A four star show which has found that extra bit of magic which lifts theatre to another plane.
Half stars fall between the ratings

A festive panto full of beans

All together now . . . Simple Simon (Ian Meikle), Squire Goodnight Mike Santos), Dame Durden (Steve Smith) and Jack (Amanda Dodd) hitting the heights. Pictures: Peter Weston

Jack and the beanstalk

Talisman Theatre, Kenilworth


PART of the learning curve for me reviewing Pantomime this Christmas has been realising how interlinked these precious amateur companies, certainly those south of Coventry, are.

A director at one – Mike Brooks, who directed the Priory's Aladdin, for instance, started his career at Kenilworth's Talisman, as well as the Priory. A clutch of performers have appeared at the Belgrade, whether at the main house or in Youth Theatre productions, or for Coventry Youth Operetta. The Talisman's good fairy came hotfoot from Leamington's Spa Theatre Company.

Companies lend, or rent, each other costumes and properties: the bulk of the Priory's multicolour Aladdin outfits actually came from the Talisman, and from the Aladdin's trove store of costumes – largely home made - painfully built up here by wardrobe master Christopher Ward.

And who should turn up as the improbably named Dame Durden, the Widow Twankey role in the Talisman's new Jack and the Beanstalk, than Steve Smith, who directed the awesomely inspired The History Boys at the Loft, Leamington a few weeks back.

Panto being Panto, you have to make some allowances. Jack (Amanda Dodd, sturdy in bearing, a kind of eager rugger player, spirited on stage, and magnificently direct - though surely a little under directed: full of hack grimaces and empty sidelong looks) was so obviously (pace the above) a girl, the Talisman seem to have decided to go the whole hog.

 Hence the blatantly female see-through tights (I imagine traditional) and – less common – the girlie bow in her hair. Plus the blatant high heels.

So - not so much Jacques as Jeanne. I didn't notice any attempt, bar a certain cheery swagger, to make Jack look like a boy; no observation of what boys actually look like, or how they move; though as such attempts at mimicking are often a disaster, perhaps it was a good decision.

In Stephen Duckham's new script – and few have the Panto-crafting experience that he has, West End and all - she had pluck and push, and that was enough for most, albeit not for me. Certain moments – like the flourish with which Act I excitedly ends and Jack sets off up the Beanstalk – were, chorus and all, brilliantly effected.  

Traditional principal boy Amanda Dodd as Jack and Kelly Davidson as Miranda, the Squire's daughter

In many ways this was a classic display of bravado, a bit like Julie Andrew turning up to bluster in Victor, Victoria. ‘I only want to be with you' (Jack with his girl, the Squire's comely daughter) was a joy; and others too.

Admirably, they turned the vibes up, yet not the noise. From the opening music (spirited, but kept to a pleasingly sensible level) one thing evident about this cast was, they could all sing.

Thus when Mike Santos's fairly footling Squire Egbert Goodnight, whose outstanding feature was his Bardolph-like red nose, ceased making fairly appalling entries, speaking somewhat ropily (though one speech, his Albert Herring-like formal homily, was a riot), and launched into duet with the Dame, the result was riveting – they had two goes at a pairing, the first (‘You do something to me') superb, the second (with catchy xylophone in Ben Kelly's musical arrangement, and growing shades of Kurt Weill) pretty good. Two different and very contrasted voices, more than presentable, and harnessed together with instinctive rhythmic acumen and bumper good tuning.

This duetting was a highlight – just as the inevitable, tacked-on audience join-in ‘Beans' song (with urgent farting noises) made a joyously corny climax. Though none of this could match the singing (unmiked, surely) of Harriet, the Squire's late-introduced niece, who treated us to the most amazing operatic outburst near the show's close. None of that yuk habitual American accent, prevalent throughout. No, something different. Tone, enunciation, delivery: it doesn't get much better than her. 

I love it when the cast appears in wholly new, honeysuckle-fresh costumes for the curtain call. One wonders what the economics of it are – and here, the deep ivy green outfits for kids, chorus and leads (though the main lucky couple appear in white) looked quite gorgeous.

The dance elements, however, were weaker: the spot-on precision, but more importantly the ideas and imagination, one saw in the rival Priory troupe's Aladdin was just not equalled.

Some numbers worked better than others, and two performers, for me, stood out – both boys. One was Ryan Howkins, an articulate mover and sympathetic chorus member, a creator of good moves and stylish patterns (his fellow, Lewis Rickhuss, did well too). The other was Jack Way, smallest of the ‘daffodils' team. If Thomas Hayes, his ‘tulips' opposite number, can perform, anticipate and execute as rivetingly well, they would be a remarkable duo.

The wicked, hungry Giant, waiting for his cow pie or human casserole, was Tom Garner, clad by costume/props with a massive head straight out of The Lord of the Rings (Gimli? Someone, anyway). He moved rather cleverly; and the voice early on was good.

Problematically, it turned rather tenor-like later on, so by the final video appearance it was hard to believe the Giant was any threat at all. Not that he is, in a genre where squeaky-clean goodness always wins through. So Jack didn't get eaten (a pity), the poor old giant (Blunderbore: now I wonder where that came from?) fell off the Beanstalk, and the impossible Slime (Graham Underhill giving a consistently good performance that involved little meaningful acting but wicked caricature and a load of clever manipulation of the audience, cunningly improvised) was not converted to Christian goodness, but simply evaporated (just possibly a scripting drawback).  

The text came and went. Quite a lot of the jokes didn't get a laugh (‘Don't know what you're laughing at: ever heard of a Big Mac?', ‘His father was a boxer, his mother was a damnation', ‘My end of the rope has slipped.' ‘That's because you used a slip knot'): inevitable to miss where an audience is substantially composed of children - or is it? Sundry bits of wording might usefully have been tightened. Some, like a limp Simon Cowell allusion, were just weak, maybe not quite rightly judged (and not just Pantomime-hack).

 Slime, the wicked Giant's Henchman played by Graham Underhill, prepares what he hopes will be a grisly end or our hero Jack

The ones that were classic, drawn or adapted from Stephen Duckham's Pandora's box of Christmas gags, worked splendidly (Simon: ‘..The chocolate factory: I did come out smelling of roses'; ‘We'll be the chicken stock of the neighbourhood'; and not too fangled for kids (‘I was attacked by a giant cockroach. When I reported it to the Police, they said there was a bug going round'). One or two witticisms – Spoonerisms for Dame D (though not carried through), a natty joke muddling dough and duff, a quickfire ditty of dotty Jack-rhymes (sack, back, alack, plaque etc) – were terrific fun.

Writing like this scored hits: the ultra-traditional but clever characterising of ‘Simple' Simon Durden, for instance (‘Durden' is lost on me; perhaps the ‘Durrr' implies thickness), Birmingham English and Drama student Ian Meikle - last year's Talisman Will Scarlett - was a joy all through (‘Think about it, Simon'), partly because of his heart-warming acting talents, but partly because Duckham has furnished him with such a delicious, tight, plum of a script.

Simon survived even that classic pitfall: ‘How long have you been sitting there?' Audience: ‘Too long!' In the best tradition, Meikle pulled off this Talispanto's Wishey-Washey character with a genuinely beautiful, heart-wrenching pathos. His ensembles with the chorus were – all of them - quite magical. What a natural at tickling an audience – you'd think he'd been at this since he was four. Perhaps he has.

Another good performer turned up at the start. This was Fay Staton, as Fairy Greenbean, the rather wonderfully conceived character who watches over the vegetable world, and those who make forays up it, too.

Maybe her pretty Robin-Hood like costume (unchanging) was just a little weak: Christopher Ward, who responded to the Director's request by coming up with a wonderful, red rather than orange, carrot-wand - one of the best conceits of the evening – could surely have pillaged Arcimboldo (the artist who painted human faces as cascades of vegetable) to come up with something fruitier.

But no matter, for Staton was one of the best speakers of the evening, assigned a delicious West Country accent, and an unforgettable ‘boing' from Dik Thacker's musical effects department every time she fluttered on.

One or two details perhaps needed attention. The follow-spot looked weak and unreliable, not just at the outset but all through. The drawing of the white middle curtain (shielding set-changes) seemed pretty amateurish - and visible - possibly needlessly so. The door at mid stage left caused the whole structure, or flat, to wobble. A joke, perhaps? Pouring tea, or water, from empty containers looks like a Kindergarten play.  

Even the Dame's exits were occasionally fouled up by black curtaining at the exits, front stage left or right: it surely shouldn't happen, even in amateur shows, nowadays. By contrast the many technicalities that worked well included the fight, at the start of Act II - rather effectively managed.

How one enjoyed the scene painting (Wendy Morris). So much detail goes into these amateur companies' rear and side flats, front drapes too. Hence the paraphernalia of Ma Durden's milking parlour and its surroundings, the blissfully two-dimensional but weighty evocations of pails and pans and rickety buildings and ill-favoured mangers. The Beanstalk was a pretty impressive construction too, somewhere between props (Wendy Elliott) and set design (there was a plethora of Wendys in this show, if you add the choreographer, Wendy McClay).    

Steve Smith as Dame Durden, Jack's impossible mother

Far from two-dimensional was Daisy the Cow (Tim Eden and Geoff Barker-Mountford), who inevitably, being the most intelligent figure on stage, stole the show. There was little that Daisy couldn't do that humans could. Her eyes, cute, then pained, here fearful, reproachful, resigned (Tim Eden worked them, brilliantly, as he did her front legs. Daisy's timing was actually better than all the rest put together), were a picture. Given an appropriate twist to the story, it should have been the switched-on Daisy – not Jack - who got them all out of the hole.

Kelly Davidson's Miranda, the Squire's unlikely daughter and Jack's gorgeous acquisition, was one of many who had an intimate relationship with Daisy – doomed to the knackers' yard (or Giant's table) and then redeemed. Miranda' one big solo song – here Wendy McClay's dance element was as good as ever - was utterly gorgeous: again, proof that Talisman stands for talent, in musical terms at least.

Steve Smith's Dame was, arguably, not quite as natty a mover as Daisy: directing others, he produces gold; playing the fool, brilliantly in most respects, he moves just a little awkwardly, stutteringly - not just in ways plotted or intended, yet always funnily – this was a performance to be savoured like a good camembert. Short on ad-libs – where he did (‘I can't get up' ‘You're as daft as I am'; or scripted: ‘Look at this place: no mod cons at all', ‘They only do that in Pantomimes') each was a peach – he shuffled and kerfuffled from scene to scene, costume to costume: Christopher Ward furnished a glorious multicolour, yet colour-coded, mishmash at the outset, and several more such; plus, latterly, green, garish orange – how did Smith manage that change? - a pink bosomy dressing gown, a glorious space suit, blue check – spreading pearls wherever he went.

This Harelquinade – though I prefer to compare it to the Roman Plautus and Terence, or the Greek Cratinus - was a treat . There was more than a shade of Frankie Howerd in the Dame's delivery (too original, however, to be mere imitation): that glorious fusion or juxtaposition of elevated intentions and common-as-muck that makes Pantomime Dames so sublime. ‘Always look on the bright side of life' was a vocal gem: you would imagine Smith to be a choirman, or ex-choirboy, at St. Mary's Warwick, at least. His shrill high note to scare off the circling demons was epic. A Pantomime Dame has to command the stage, or the show is lost. In Duckham's production, Smith ran things like a Brigadier in the Dragoons. Carry on up the Khyber? No wonder everyone fell into place. To 05-01-13

Roderic Dunnett 

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