Clive Rowe is astonishing: Hackney Empire's Jack and the Beanstalk reviewed

18 December 2021

9:00 AM

18 December 2021

9:00 AM

Jack and the Beanstalk

Hackney Empire, until 2 January

Red Riding Hood

Theatre Royal Stratford East, until 31 December

Jack and the Beanstalk is a big, sprawling family show that opens with a baffling gesture. A booming voiceover announces that Hackney is being menaced by some unseen threat. Enter an evil monster, Funella Fleshcreep, who wears facial moisturiser made from liquefied avocado. This green-cheeked ogre is challenged by the virtuous characters, Jack Trot and Simple Simon, who must defeat her and deliver Hackney from danger.

The show starts to finds its way once Clive Rowe appears as the dairymaid, Dame Trot, who needs to milk a dysfunctional, dried-up cow. There are few performers in Britain who are as versatile as Rowe. He can do broad slapstick as well as stand-up comedy. He can descend into the stalls and weave a spot of improvisational magic with a crowd of strangers. His voice is an amazing instrument. He can croon as sweetly as Andy Williams and he has no trouble belting out a soul classic with the rough, discordant power of James Brown. Christmas panto is the only theatrical genre that allows him to express the full spectrum of his abilities.

He co-directs this show with Tony Whittle who plays an oddly dressed councillor, Higginbottom. His fetish is to impersonate Freddie Mercury and he first appears with boot-polish hair and a spangly white jumpsuit. The Freddie outfits are accompanied by puns on the titles of Queen tracks. These will make sense to anyone over 40 but younger folk might struggle to get the references. And there’s a faint air of indulgent whimsy about the entire show. But the dancing and tumbling routines are first-rate. And the children loved it.

Red Riding Hood, at Stratford East, is a panto that observes the conventions of good dramatic writing. The stories are located within family units and each of the characters has a clear mission to fulfil. It starts with Granny, a Glaswegian alcoholic, who lives in a forest and is running short of pink gin. Little Red Riding Hood, known as Red, must carry the indispensable medicine to Granny without being attacked by the ravening Wolf. The Wolf has family problems of his own. He’s so obsessed with capturing Red that he ignores his son, Wolfie, who wears pink tassels on his sleeves and has an important confession to share with his dad. Wolfie is gay, clearly, and he fears his father’s disapproval. But each time he broaches the subject, he’s thwarted by a chance event. These themes are easy to relate to: addiction, stranger danger, and closeted homosexuality.

Red lives with her Mum, a sexpot from Essex (played brilliantly by Kirsty Whelan), who wants to be a successful influencer and keeps photographing herself beside new products from Amazon. Red asks her mother what influenced her to become an influencer. ‘An influencer,’ says Mum. And she tells Red that her dad has passed away. ‘My dad is not dead,’ says Red, ‘he’s living in Forest Hill.’ Mum: ‘Exactly. I rest my case.’ The dialogue is not exactly Noël Coward but it’s perky enough.

The exuberant script happily disregards the traditions of Christmas and steals odd bits and bobs from all over the place. At one point, Little Bo Peep barges into the story and delivers a burst of street patois along with complex gangsta hand signals. Where did that come from? Early in Act Two, the Wolf succeeds in devouring Granny and most of the other characters as well, but this leaves the show devoid of personnel. No matter. The Wolf’s intestine appears from the wings and he excretes the half-eaten characters back on to the stage. Then the story begins afresh.

In the closing scenes, the Wolf finds time to listen to his son’s confession but the youngster turns out not to be gay. He’s a vegan. His proudly carnivorous father finds the news even more distressing. Much of this material is aimed at adults — which is fair enough, since they paid for the tickets — but there’s plenty to delight the nippers as well. They’re asked to contribute by screaming an alarm word, ‘Red!’ whenever the Wolf appears. Some of the youngsters overdid this and began yelling ‘Red!’ throughout the show at press night. A few were probably still bawling ‘Red!’ on the bus home.

This is a dazzlingly good show with some excellent comic performances. Jodie Jacobs is hilarious as she switches between the roles of a narky school mistress and a strapping woodcutter. Raphael Bushay, as the mischievous Wolf, brings a strange delicacy and tenderness to craving a taste of Red Riding Hood’s flesh. (There’s a very weird sexuality to this storyline which the show rightly overlooks.)

A couple of footnotes about panto this year. The Brexit jokes have dried up at last. And the audiences seem to be a little sparse. If you hate lockdown, visit your local panto. It’s a great way to protest.

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