Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Jack and the Beanstalk – is the emergence of online panto the green shoots of theatre reawakening or a stretch too far? (Cre8 Theatre and Buglight Theatre)

Pantomime on a Saturday morning in July? Oh no there isn’t! Oh yes there was! Cre8 Theatre and Buglight Theatre staged their online Jack and the Beanstalk last weekend to the delight of a mixed-age audience.

Pantomime is normally the preserve of winding down for Christmas. It’s a family affair with parents or grandparents bring youngsters on a rite of passage visit to the theatre. Outside of some shows in Belfast Children’s Festival, it’s the most boisterous and highly interactive family entertainment you’ll find on stage. Pantomime in July is a stretch, but with so many traditions being torn up, why not?

While there are plenty of Zoom puns and a computer antivirus scanner that knowingly nods towards the pandemic, the ‘C word’ is never uttered and the story stays in the make-believe world of pantomime.

Dazey Cow was the first character to burst on stage on screen. The high energy hostess and narrator played by Althea Burey calmed down the excited kids and reminded us about the housekeeping rules to keep on mute but expect to be asked to take part. There was a song with actions to learn too. Everyone has a theme tune and something to keep the audience on its toes: my idea of hell, but the rest of the audience seemed much less inhibited! And I still ended up in the spotlight on-screen wearing my brussels sprout shirt and doing the actions at one point …

The story – adapted from Cre8 Theatre’s December 2019 production at the Braid Arts Centre in Ballymena – revolves around a Giant (Richard Galloway) who wants to lock everyone up, starting with people in Zoom rooms. The role of pantomime dame is filled by Christopher Grant playing cleaning obsessive Ms Pinch complete with beauty spot and plenty of witty repartee. Her son, Great Craic Jack (Harri Pitches) needs income, a job and motivation. But does the Butcher (Galloway) who pays peanuts magic beans have ulterior moo-tives? Can the beanstalk be felled in time? Can Dazey Cow be saved from the Butcher? Can work shy Great Craic Jack save Virtual Vlogger Jill (Holly Greig) from the Giant’s lockdown and also get rich and famous?

Lasting less than an hour, the cast of five really work the small screen environment. Good facial expressions, big hats, leaning into the camera (Galloway’s close-up stares are brilliant), playing with perspective in the virtual green-screen backdrops (including some neat videos). Greig delivers the least shouty performance as the damsel in distress, proving that there is room for tenderness and not everything online has to be manic. But with so much energy and so little feedback, I wonder if the actors find it more exhausting than exhilarating?

While there was no need to choreograph any big dance numbers, there was incredible precision in how a performer could lie back and appear to be in bed, or turn to face the (invisible green screened) stairs behind them at the right angle to shout up to someone in a bedroom. And wrapping an arm around the beanstalk (spoiler: probably achieved with a well-placed green armband) was another moment that hinted at the level of planning and practice.

Other producers of Zoom shows will be looking at the use of live filters (like the ones on Snapchat that add horns in realtime) and wondering what magic beans were added to the video workflow to make that happen. (Though despite advanced technical trickery and my inner nerd, I still find physical effects to be the most engaging.)

Written by Sarah Lyle (who co-directs with Keeley Lane), Jack and the Beanstalk is a solid piece of online interactive family theatre. It’s great to see live theatre, even if it’s from a distance. And it’s encouraging to see people experimenting with form and adapting to limitations and innovating.

If theatres remain dark over Christmas, this may be an alternative and quite classy format for panto, albeit with limited audiences and very limited opportunities for performers and creatives. However, it is ultimately a pale imitation of the collective experience of anticipation, joy and yelling that can be found when a large audience is in the same room as the performers who can feed off their reaction and create a frisson of energy that Giant Pandemic has stolen.