Jack and the Beanstalk

May McFettridge rules the panto roost with plenty of gags and a costume Lady Gaga would envy

This year’s panto at the Grand Opera House, Jack and the Beanstalk, contains more references to Northern Irish culture than you could shake a soda farl at.

It is set in ‘the magical village of Ahoghill’, for starters. There are references to Sinn Fein and the DUP from the get-go, and at one point the giant is offered Buckfast to quench his thirst. Of course, these quips are all the more potent when delivered by Belfast’s first lady of comedy, May McFettridge.

Playing Jack’s mother, ‘Dame May Trot’, she arrives on-stage in a Smart car (apparently she is ‘doing alright on the DLA’ we are informed). Endlessly quick on her feet, McFettridge banters with the audience throughout. Some punters from Larne get the rough edge of her tongue. 'They’ll have electric light there soon!’

A lot of the fun comes from keeping the children innocently amused while supplying the adults with a steady stream of innuendo. Returning home from the shops, Jack (played by Coalisland actor, Aidan O’Neill) bemoans the fact that none of the shops stock what he wants. ‘Selfridges did not sell fridges,' he complains, ‘nor did Boots sell boots.' However, ‘the biggest disappointment of all was in Virgin Megastore’.

Luckily, the subject matter of this year’s play provides plenty of gags. ‘I see a giant!’ proclaims King Crumble (Paddy Jenkins) off-stage. Cue McFettridge yelling for him to stop looking up her skirt.

Of course, this all goes over the heads of the younger audience members, but there is plenty for the children too. A particularly popular character is Day-Z the Rapping Cow, who inspires one of the best songs of the show, a cover of Chicago’s soft-rock ballad adjusted to ‘If You Leave Me Cow’, complete with a moo-ing chorus.

Indeed, the range of music caters quite well for all ages, a mixture of original compositions, golden oldies such as 'It Takes Two' and 'I’m A Believer', and recent pop smashes. The stand-out number is Lady Gaga’s ‘Born This Way’. Inexplicably and unforgettably, McFettridge’s costume in this scene features enormous singing breasts, one of which does its best to bite the hand off the token ultra-camp dancer.

But it's not all effortless fun. At times it feels that the kid's references are somewhat shoehorned in. There is an oddly anachronistic appearance of the Teletubbies at one point, as well as an unlikely cameo from Batman.

Furthermore, there are endless references to X Factor, Strictly Come Dancing, I'm a Celebrity, Catherine Tate, Kerry Katona and Who Wants To Be a Millionaire. These occur so frequently that they grate a little. The icing on the cake is King Crumble affecting a heavy Teeside accent: 'Day one in the Big Giant House.'

Pyrotechnics play a key part in the performance, with a puff of smoke and a miniature explosion every time the Fairy (Ruth Berkeley) takes to the stage. However, these extravagances pale in comparison to the 3D effect that dominates the second act of the play, illustrating a journey to the Giant’s castle.

Rather than being a cheap novelty, these effects work well. Increasingly horrible creatures leap out at the audience – including an ogre, flying vampire teeth, insects, spiders, a dragon and, er, a mobile phone.

Whilst these effects are put to good use, there is, unfortunately and perhaps predictably, a definite over emphasis on spectacle rather than substance. There is also a notable lack of star power this year, with no recognisable soap star driving proceedings.

Yet the cast do their best to make up for that. And, of course, the star of the show is McFettridge. She rounds up proceedings with a sing-along of ‘The Music Man’, for which she brings a few delighted children from the audience on-stage. Even the under tens aren’t offered a reprieve from her pointed wit. She jokes with a young chap from the Belmont Road about the ‘Big Issue being delivered to his house’.

Certainly the pantomime has changed over the years. It is now a lot louder, and has less of a plot. However, the core ingredients are still there – a bit of cheeky innuendo and some wholesome fun for all the family. There are still shouts of ‘he’s behind you’ and a heart-warming moral message that is contained within a cover of ‘Don’t Stop Believing’, with the lyrics ‘just a small town boy, born and raised in Aughnacloy’.