Last year the Barbican signed up Mark Ravenhil to pen their panto, this year it has brought in Jonathan Harvey, the man behind Beautiful Thing to write the script, and the award-winning songwriters George Stiles and Anthony Drewe from Mary Poppins to provide the music. Sounds like a safe bet, right?
Well, safe it is – maybe too safe. The opening song, entitled Bog Standard, becomes a statement of intent for the mediocrity that follows. Set in the little town of the same name, they need a bog standard hero and that’s pretty much all we get.
The show takes two and a half hours to tell the story of how Jack falls in love with Princess Melody. Since their love is forbidden, he sells his mother’s cow for some magic beans hoping to grant himself his heart’s desire. But the princess is enslaved by a giant and so plucky Jack must save the day. Up the beanstalk he goes, grabs the girl, kills the giant. And so forth and so on, you know the story.
Thank heavens for Ashley Campbell’s Mad Matty, our enthusiastic guide through these rather run-of-the-mill proceedings; his high energy keeps the, otherwise rather plodding plot, afloat which, and more than makes up for Helen Baker’s lack of charisma as Jack. She is very one-dimensional, even for panto, and the princess is equally lacking in personality.
Fortunately, Andy Gray as Dame Dolly Deluxe is more than able to keep the audience entertained. Her tale of poverty, including a short-lived career as a paunchy pole dancer, is a hilarious highlight of the evening and brings the first act to a peak far too early. It’s a real shame that this infectious silliness isn’t tapped into more often. The entertaining Mel Giedroyc, of Mel and Sue, is also underused as Fairy Liquid.
With both Stephen Fry turning his hand to panto at the Old Vic and Ravenhill’s efforts last year at the Barb, it’s become quite the in thing, writing pantomime, but Harvey’s attempts feel like an opportunity missed. He has disappointingly stuck to a rather dull formula of fat jokes and ancient gags about hedgehogs. A big, sing-a-long, dance-a-long number is also handled clumsily, shoe-horned in to allow for the set change for the finale.
The candy-coloured costumes, particularly the fantastic regalia for the resident dame are to be commended. Ditto the imaginative sets with their ambitious background art, especially the giant T-Rex skeleton. Technically the show impresses, but the script should have been far sharper and the performances really needed to be a little fuller for this show to work. A big budget and big name writer count for nothing if the show fails to deliver on some very basic levels.