Theatre critic TIM WALKER reviews a new production of Jack and the Beanstalk, which can be viewed at selected cinemas and online
Heaven only knows what Peter Duncan’s neighbours made of what they saw going on in his garden in recent months. The former Blue Peter star got it into his head to make a Christmas panto that would be fit for purpose in the time of Covid. Between the lockdowns, he invited almost 50 actors to his home in south London, along with all the usual production staff, and got out his own cheque book to fund his version of Jack and the Beanstalk.
I’ve already made it clear what I think of online theatre – it’s simply no substitute for attending shows in the flesh – but it’d be unbelievably churlish not to acknowledge that Duncan, along with his co-director Ian Talbot and producer Denise Silvey, have created something rather special. Duncan’s television experience means that he understands the difference between playing to a live audience and playing to cameras, and, as a consequence, this show stands like a giant above most of the other online productions I’ve seen lately.
Sporting the dreaded lockdown locks – long and dishevelled – Duncan himself plays Dame Trott in the colourful, good-humoured extravaganza that he’s also written as a jaunty new take on the old fairy story. There are jokes thrown in about hoarding loo rolls, social distancing and even chlorinated chickens and the single market that will, I fancy, make people look back on this as prime-time zeitgeist.
The musical director Colin Cattle has gone a long way to recreating the kind of atmosphere that normally only a live audience can provide, and the children, watching it at home on screen, should hopefully know when to point out that there’s a villain behind the actors and won’t need too much prompting to say “oh yes you are” etc.
As lovely as Duncan’s garden clearly is, he understands that it gets claustrophobic after a while and he employs a drone to film some scenes above various familiar locations around the capital and his special effects man Peter Humphrey even manages to get him airborne at one point. A local church and another garden are also utilised as locations.
This government may have crassly let it be known that performers can always re-train in IT to make some money, but that’s not what it’s about for them. It’s hard not to be struck by the joy and relief on the faces of the actors in this production – it clearly means the world to all of them that Duncan has given them the chance to do what they love to do.
I’m told this production has turned out to be a big commercial success and that’s great news as it’s supporting six charities and youth projects. On its own terms, it’s as good as it possibly could be.
I should add that it boasts, too, unusually beguiling principals in Sam Ebenezer as Jack and Sarah Moss as Jill, who do eventually get to kiss, albeit but with a sheet of perspex between their lips.
Peter Duncan’s ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’ will be playing at Showcase Cinemas on Saturday December 11 and online at www.pantoonlne.co.uk