This year's celebrities are definitely more home grown. Clive Rowe, usually the main attraction at Hackney Empire has been poached to play the dame whilst Al Murray aka The Pub Landlord is the main comic, in the popular panto story of JACK AND THE BEANSTALK.
I saw the show two nights after the official press night and their joy at being on stage was infectious even when acknowledging, and making fun of the weaker jokes they're required to deliver.
The plot is nominal; a boy, Jack, is tricked into selling his beloved cow in exchange for beans, the beans sprout to become a massive beanstalk, the boy climbs it and defeats a giant whilst rescuing a princess who marries him. Rowe plays Jack’s mother, Murray his brother and the rest of the cast are engaging enough without distracting attention from the main stars.
The story however is of secondary importance. It’s really just a framework for a series of set-piece slap-stick and wordplay gags and, as this is big budget panto, for spectacle. On this occasion the special effects include Al Murray in a helicopter whirring above the front stalls and a visually impressive 3D film sequence in which Jack and his friends explore the castle. There’s also some adorable farm animals.
Al Murray, whose career’s been built around booze gags for adults, seemed an odd choice to lead a family friendly show (I wonder if they do all his alcohol related jokes for school performances) but I have to say he won me over in seconds with the warmth of his personality and cheeky, naughty-boy grin.
The sets are a visual feast of painted cloth scenery rendered in the gorgeous colours of a children’s story book. The only disappointing element was the score, comprising of pop songs so retro that there’s scarcely anything anyone under 20 would recognise. Never the less the kids seemed to get caught up in their parents' enthusiasm for the vintage musical numbers. Apart from the pub humour most of the script seemed perfectly pitched to tickle an undemanding audience craving a simple night of Christmas entertainment.
Astutely directed by Thom Southerland, the main objective here is unsophisticated fun, fun, fun. Go expecting to laugh out loud and you won’t be disappointed.