Saturday, December 18, 2021

Jack and the Beanstalk – poverty, servitude, fast-growing pulses and aggressive giants (Belvoir Players Studio until 8 January)

Christmas must be the time of year when the greatest number of amateur dramatic participants – young and old – step on stage to entertain audiences. As a child I was taken just the once to the Grand Opera House to see the pantomime: it was “a cracker” according to Frank Carson. But over the years I was dragged privileged to attend many more local festive amateur operatic and dramatic society shows in small theatres and technical college hall stages between Lisburn, Belfast and Bangor.

Despite the peculiarities and constraints of rehearsing and staging a pantomime during a pandemic, Belvoir Players Amateur Dramatic Society have thrown themselves at the challenge with a double (and in some cases, triple) cast production of Jack and the Beanstalk.

The stage version of the fairy tale is reckoned to be 202 years old, first performed in Drury Lane in 1819 – and Ben Crocker’s script brings the familiar story of poverty, servitude, fast-growing pulses and aggressive giants up-to-date with Edena the Eco Fairy opening the show and waving her magic wand over key parts of the action.

With an unpaid giant tax bill mounting up, it seems certain this will result in forced marriage for the King’s daughter who’d prefer to be knocking around with the young son of dairy farmer Dame Trot than being a slave in the giant’s kitchen. Throw in Daisy the curtseying cow and a young ensemble that includes a genuinely creepy troupe of dancing cockroaches.

Walking on Sunshine gets the first act off to a strong start, with the hand-painted style of backcloths providing plenty of storybook atmosphere. All the set pieces that you’d expect to see in a traditional pantomime are there, spaced out across the two-hour show, including callouts to audience members, a (very brief) spot of ultra violet fluorescence, and even a couple of mildly saucy lines that are thrown over the young heads to tickle the adults.

The principals throw themselves into their roles. Particular plaudits are due to Sinead Fox-Hamilton (Edena) who has a great voice and a very good sense of timing with the rhyming script that ping pongs between cast members. Amelie Euler makes a fabulous giant’s henchman, dark and menacing, drawing out the audience boos playing baddie Slimeball. And Ellie Wisoner gives the King’s flunky Trumpet a lot of personality, particularly with her hilarious eye-rolling and gestures while disguised as an eavesdropping Christmas Tree.

Harrison Gordon (Jack), Nikita Muir (Princess Demelza), Teddy Bingham (King Bertram), Mark McClean (Simple Simon) and Gareth McGimpsey (the giant) played the other lead roles at the performance I attended. Special mention to the front and back ends of the rather dainty bovine thespian, David Bell and Chris Pegg.

The Saturday afternoon grandparent/grandchildren audience is a tough one to crack, and the lack of a bar means that every laugh is earned the hard way. I suspect that if Dame Trot (Robert McGregor) builds a few ad libs into their patter, it’ll be heartedly rewarded by the audience.

Some lovely harmonies cut through from the main cast when the ensemble join them for the big musical numbers. Musical director Wilson Shields and the band accompany the songs and provide some of the sound effects, though the addition of more effects – while adding to the technical complexity – might give more life to some of the longer dialogue-heavy scenes.

Belvoir Players have pulled off a huge achievement to have taught the choreography to three separate youth ensembles (who are a credit to Belvoir Players’ Theatre Academy) and rehearsed two separate casts for the pantomime. It also shows a huge commitment to local theatre, running auditions and allowing so many newcomers their first chance to perform a principal role. Hats off to director Roger Dane and choreographer Matthew Watson for making that possible.

With a good long run – pandemic permitting – between them the cast will have a chance to get 24 shows under their belts and really hone their collective performances. Jack and the Beanstalk continues at Belvoir Players Studio until 8 January.

Enjoyed this review? Why click on the Buy Me a Tea button!

No comments: