Jack and the Beanstalk

Terry Blain discovers that for all our technological advances nothing much changes in Pantoland

Ear mics, flashing LED screens, and a cow who raps, texts and Facebooks – pantomimes have certainly changed a lot since when I sat in Coleraine Town Hall as a callow country lad, goggling in wonderment at local panto hero Billy Bones disporting in his dame regalia.

Or have they? Glancing sideways at the throng of baying youngsters squealing instructions at the onstage characters in LANA Productions’ Jack and the Beanstalk at the Waterfront Hall and locking enthusiastically into the standard call-and-response routines of the actors – ‘He went that a-way!’ –  the years roll back a little, and I wonder if very much has changed at all in the interim.

Here, for instance, is the dame of yore, the buxom, mobile-bosomed Dolly Dosh of Ross Anderson-Doherty. Dolly is Mother Motor-Mouth, fast-chatting with the audience and ab-libbing for Ireland. She is a tough Belfast materfamilias, this one, a real hard yoke with tattoo sleeves (real ones) to prove it.

Dolly is penniless, and browbeats son Jack, the artlessly charming Ben Kerr, to do something about it. He tries to, but Jolene O’Hara’s Princess Jill is a constant amorous distraction.

 

And there’s another problem – the dire Pennypinchers, grossly avaricious wizard types who will stop at nothing to fleece needy families of their housing rental. They speak in English accents, and for a moment I wonder if there is a bit of a Westminster-Stormont block grant satire developing.

This is panto, though, so there isn’t. What does develop is a pair of wonderfully sneering, sniping characterisations of the dastardly couple. Kerri Quinn and Patrick J O’Reilly (who also wrote the show) –recent stars of Bruiser Theatre Company’s Cabaret at The MAC – are the actors, and they revel in the nastiness.

Both have star quality, and energy to burn with it. Darting, chasing, sizzling through the quickfire dialogue with blowtorch rapidity, you wonder how they will get through to the end of the evening, let alone complete a run that lasts till January 4. By curtain-call the youngsters are still hissing at them. Job done, in terms of panto villainy.

The pinpoint accuracy of their performances is mirrored on the technical side of the production, where the large number of sound, lighting and video cues are consistently bang on the money. I find the levels of amplification a touch overpowering at times – but perhaps that’s my age showing again.

Musically the singing is of a high standard, and the songs are mainly upbeat, cheerful punctuations of the action, with some harmonies. Director Lisa May – another Bruiser connection – adds much gestural and choreographic detail to both spoken and musical sections. This is again very slickly implemented by the six actors, betokening scrupulous rehearsal and preparation.

Niall Rea’s set is chocolate-box-pretty, an endearing swirl of bright primary colours and snaking tendrils topped by a giant video screen, where Conleth White’s clever projections enhance the platform action. The stage is framed by a purpose-built proscenium, turning the potentially arid space of the Waterfront Studio into an intimate, raked auditorium, ideal for children’s theatre.

All the elements come together in the show’s finale, where Anderson-Doherty’s Dolly Dosh and the intrepid, multi-tasking Daisy the Cow (the impressively uddered Rachel Murray) launch an increasingly frenetic sing-a-long, namechecking birthday boys and girls from the audience in the process.

The pace of the show is sometimes breathless, the dialogue occasionally clamorous. And I’d have liked the magic beanstalk to be more visually prominent. But who’s complaining? Not the children, who are still waving their glitter-sticks and yelping excitedly at the conclusion.

They are right to, for the experienced production team of Martin Lynch and Joe Rea have put together a sparklingly, entertaining evening, packed with fun and full of festive spirit. Do your kids a favour and take them to it.

Jack and the Beanstalk runs in the Waterfront Hall, Belfast until January 4. Check out What's On event listings for information on other pantos taking place across Northern Ireland over the festive season.