REVIEW: Jack & The Beanstalk (Theatre Peckham)

We may be almost a week into our our Advent Calendars already but last night marked the start of the festive season proper, as we attended the press night of Theatre Peckham’s pantomime, Jack & The Beanstalk. Far from your traditional pantomime, this is a production that puts the young people of Theatre Peckham’s Youth Academy* centre stage, alongside professional actors. And even the well-known story is given a distinctly Peckham twist…..

Written by Olivier nominated playwright, Paul Sirettt and directed by Suzann McLean, with compositions by Wayne Nunes and Perry Melius, Jack & The Beanstalk takes inspiration from the teen adventure movies of the electric 80s. It opens with Dame, Mrs Trott (Michael Bertenshaw) tinkling on her ukelele to console herself about last night’s break in at the family home. To make matters worse, landlord Mr Fleece (Yinka Williams) turns up demanding the rent, but the Trotts are broke. It’s a good job the burglars didn’t steal Marilyn the Cow (Jolie Green-Molloy*) too. But with Marilyn not giving up any milk to satisfy Mr Fleece’s demands, Mrs Trott is going to have to sell her. Her son, Jack (Cyrus Abraham-Odukale*) offers to take her to market while new friend Lucy (Aiko Foueillis-Mose*) investigates the break-in. Lucy’s Dad is one of the new police offers that the government has promised to Peckham. But he hasn’t arrived yet.

En route to market, Jack is persuaded by villains Biz (Michael Gonsalves) and Boz (Nova Skyla Foueillis-Mose* ) to trade poor Marilyn for a handful of beans. Little does Jack know that this dastardly duo are supplying ogre, Uggluck (Barney Lundie-Ball) with meat, with Marilyn destined to become the filling in a steak and kiddie pie. Will Jack be able to rescue Marilyn from the giant’s kitchen and find a way of making his family’s fortune? Will Biz and Boz turn away from a life of crime and open a Bed & Breakfast? And will Uggluck’s harp-human hybrid Harpo (Kitty Hollingsworth) ever get to sing her big number?

The script of this production was first produced at Theatre Royal Stratford East in 2012 and has been especially re-worked to give it a Peckham vibe. The plot is a great twist on the traditional tale, with the fun addition of the crime solving plot and the Boz and Biz burglar duo (even if Mummy did have to bite her tongue several times to stop her heckling about the legal difference between robbery and burglary). There are also some great touches in the scenes that take place in Uggluck’s castle, particularly the idea that all of his things are made up of a combination of human body parts and recycled junk. The most entertaining of these is the evolution of the tale’s traditional golden hen into Henrietta (Tamara McKoy-Patterson), part tap-dancer, part chicken, part cash machine!

Tamara McKoy-Patterson as Henrietta in Jack & The Beanstalk. Credit: Suzi Corker.

Though the story itself has been entertainingly updated, the script is sadly lacking in the satire and innuendo that you might expect of a pantomime (with the exception of the one cutting comment about police recruitment). Perhaps unsurprising in a youth production, but a disappointing omission in our book nonetheless. It does, however, have all the other ingredients you’d expect of a festive favourite. Including plenty of audience participation and several fancy frock changes from Bertenshaw.

Though the adult cast all put in stellar performances, the show really belongs to the youngsters. Jack, Lucy and Boz are all massive roles, performed by talented young actors who look at ease alongside their adult counterparts. Meanwhile Shot the Poet (Nawaz Henry*) was a firm favourite every time he popped up to command the stage with some spoken word wisdom. It was great to see so many confident young people performing on a big stage, supported by their friends and family (as well as other members of the Theatre Peckham Academy). And it was inspiring for the munchkins to see theatre made by young people for their community.

This is what makes Theatre Peckham so special. It is a place where professional artists and people of all ages can come together to learn about, make and appreciate theatre. From the moment we entered the building, there was a real community feel to the venue, with the Southwark Pensioners choir singing Christmas carols while people arrived. And this feeling of community endured throughout the performance, from the enthusiastic audience participation right through to the deserved standing ovation. As an extra treat, everyone got badges at the end saying “I believe in Dizzy”. Who’s Dizzy? You’d better see it for yourself….

Jack & The Beanstalk runs at Theatre Peckham from 4 to 22 December 2019.

*Denotes members of the Theatre Peckham Academy. There are two separate teams of young actors performing in Jack & the Beanstalk. Blue Team performed on Press Night.