Wednesday 2 January 2008

Jack and the Beanstalk - Barbican

I suppose it augurs well for the state of British theatre that alongside powerful, beautiful works like Women of Troy, proletarian artforms like the pantomime, with its roots in variety and music hall, continue to co-exist. How much longer the pantomime survives, however, will depend on its continuing success in providing entertainment. If the Barbican’s new urge toward “designer” pantomimes gains a foothold, that looks unlikely to be long. Following last year's experiment with grafting a well-known and enthusiastic theatre writer onto the tacky body of an ailing form, resulting in Mark Ravenhill's ambitious failure Dick Whittington, this year it is the turn of Jonathan Harvey (Beautiful Thing; Gimme, gimme, gimme) and once again the result is a mess.

The main problem here is that writing funnily for theatre, or even for popular TV, is a world away from being able to breathe fresh life into panto’s numerous hackneyed routines. The point of pantomime is to induce giddy idiocy in its predominantly youthful audience, while delivering enough smut and topical gaggery to keep the adults happy. It should at least be a demonstration of theatre’s liveness and immediacy par excellence. Never mind that this liveness is put to entirely pointless ends, it should still be live. Giles Havergal's production feels virtually hermetic. Granted, it still incorporates plenty of shouting, audience response sections and "look behind you"-ing, but as was demonstrated by yesterday's lukewarm crowd, the actors can continue to play along with the game even if given only the most muted of responses.

The performances are a mixed bag too. Granted I saw a Saturday matinee, nonetheless the whole thing felt flat. Andy Gray is a competent enough dame, but seemed lost without a proper rough and tumble audience to play off; Steve Furst was barely adequate in his villainy. Helen Baker as Jack was suitably tuneful, but hardly inspiring or heroic, while Alison Pargeter as his/her love interest Princess Melody barely got a chance to do more than simper. More annoying was Ashley Campbell as Jack’s brother Matty - the Buttons role of the piece - too Musical Theatre to come across as the big brother figure the role demands, he was instead a continual one-man self-showcase. And after a while, such self-regard wears very thin indeed.

The combination of half-baked script, underpowered performance and unsympathetic space - the Barbican's excellent main theatre, while well-suited to housing arthouse productions, is too airily cavernous to facilitate easy audience address - the energy of the crowd, by which the spectacle should be buoyed along, is too thinly spread across the wide rows and comfy chairs. Harvey has opted for a foolish half-way house invoking the rituals of the pantomime, but keeping them at an ironic distance. You’d think this makes for easier viewing for pantomime-phobes such as myself, but in fact creating a restrained, middle class spectacle for similarly restrained, middle-class audiences makes a nonsense of the whole idea.

At the same time, there seems to be something of a mis-match between audience and material. For something being marketed as a posh panto - and I swear in the audience with which I saw it, there was honestly a seven year old boy wearing plus-fours - this is very much stuck in tabloid culture. The re-heated Catherine Tate routines, jokes about TV programmes, adverts and celebrities seemed to be well wide of the mark and consequently generating very little by way of hilarity. Overall, there is precious little to enjoy and much to endure. Avoid.


Tom Wateracre said...

re: "while __ __ as his/her love interest Princess ___"

I think you should write all your reviews as madlibs from now on.

"I went to see (show) starring (actor) and (actor #2). Despite (negative thing), I thought it was (positive adjective), yet in no way as good as if it were directed by Katie Mitchell. (amount of stars) Stars."

Andrew Haydon said...

Ha! I might at some point get around to locating the programme and adding the names of the guilty parties. Although I don't think I have one for Beanstalk. After such a lengthy hiatus, I thought I'd better do something to show I'm not dead, and worry about the details later.