REVIEW (From a distance): Jack and the Beanstalk (New Wolsey Theatre)

The New Wolsey Theatre in Ipswich is back with a hybrid pantomime again this year, giving audiences the option of attending an in-person performance of Jack and the Beanstalk or live-streaming the action from home. We headed along to their press performance last night; by which we mean we sat on the sofa as the show was beamed into our living room – a great opportunity to virtually visit a venue outside our local area and the perfect way to see a show on a school night!

Billed as a “rock’n’roll pantomime”, Jack and the Beanstalk features a cast of actor-musicians, each of whom plays a character (or two) as well as an instrument (or two!). It’s fun to watch the talented cast as they slip seamlessly in and out of the band in between their acting segments. Nicola Bryan gives a standout performance, both in her role as Fleshcreep and on trumpet. James Haggie also impresses on guitar and as village idiot, Billy, while Joe Butcher is quite literally the beating heart of the production on percussion and in an awesome giant costume.

Nicola Bryan as Fleshcreep. Credit: Mike Kwasniak

It’s a fairly traditional take on the classic panto (although the plot is a bit muddled in places), with writer Peter Rowe ensuring that there is something in there to appeal to all ages. The witty one-liners (most of which fall to Steve Simmonds as the entertaining Dame Dolly Durden) are a highlight and will please adults who enjoy a panto with a good bit of innuendo. We especially enjoyed the aubergine emoji gag! Adults will probably also appreciate the excellent choice of pop songs, although there could perhaps be more contemporary songs for the younger members of the audience. The munchkins didn’t know many of them at all, which is unusual in a panto. There is, however, a lot of toilet humour and a good amount of audience participation (Oh, yes there is!) as well as some digs at Norwich to entertain the local audience. Families considering an evening performance should be aware that it is rather on the long side, finishing after 10pm last night. Luckily, the munchkins only had to do a short trip up the wooden beanstalk at bedtime but it still made for a very late night.

One feature of this production that we really want to highlight is the focus on accessibility and inclusion. The New Wolsey’s commitment to broadening access is really refreshing at a time when so many theatres seem to have abandoned their online audiences and returned to purely in-person productions. Jack and the Beanstalk is a genuinely hybrid piece of theatre which features a mix of live on-stage action and recorded segments (beamed into the theatre via a large screen). This makes it feel like a show which is truly aimed at both the online and in-person audience, rather than a case of just sticking a camera in the auditorium as a second-best option for those who can’t attend in-person. The script also references the online audience, ensuring that they feel included throughout. In addition to the online show (which offers captioning and audio description for all performances), there will also be a number of access performances throughout the run, including audio described, captioned, BSL and relaxed performances. (Captioning is replaced with a BSL option during the BSL-interpreted shows). Ahead of the show, audiences were also offered the chance to digitally feature in the show, by submitting a video of themselves performing a piece of BSL-incorporated choreography by Darragh O’Leary.

All in all, Jack and the Beanstalk is a fun production which provides a shining example of how hybrid theatre offers an opportunity for widening access to the arts and should be the goal for post-pandemic practice rather than confined to the Covid crisis response.

Jack and the Beanstalk plays at the New Wolsey Theatre (in person and online) from 25 November 2021 to 8 January 2022. We received complimentary online access to the press performance on 30 November 2021.