Venue: Wolverhampton Grand Theatre

Production Run: Sat 9 Dec 2017 - Sun 14 Jan 2018

Production Reviewed: Tue 12 Dec 2017 (Press Night)

The most challenging time of the year for any self-respecting theatre critic is once again upon us.

No, not Panto season itself (you cynic!), but rather that time of great creative torture when we have to roll up our sleeves and even just attempt to review the mirth and merriment of panto without resorting to the same tired bag of cliches and soundbites.

Oh, yes it is!

Darn. So close.

Gaiety aside, there are fewer signs that the festive season is well and truly underway than the indelible image of a panto dame showcasing more extravagant and outlandish costumes than that one cringe-inducing fashion show episode of The Apprentice a few weeks ago. Or the sound of a thousand people cheering, booing and laughing at the latest iteration of the same lovable hijinks and silliness as some will have no doubt seen countless times over.

“It might be rubbish, but it’s British!” chimes in Ian Adams, who cements himself here as officially one of the most reliable, lovable and game panto dames out there.

And whilst the Wolverhampton Grand’s Jack and the Beanstalk is indeed every inch the traditional panto through and through, and so, by extension, thoroughly British right through to its gigantic roots, it is most certainly far from rubbish.

The Grand have enjoyed something of a renaissance with their pantomimes in recent years. And it’s in no small part thanks to them following suit with some other theatres in getting their own personal or local talent to headline for multiple years on the (Dame) trot.

Four of the show’s biggest assets come in the form of returning talent from last year’s Aladdin - namely Emmerdale and Loose Women star Lisa Riley, Northern funnyman Adam C Booth, the aforementioned Ian Adams, and local viral superstar Doreen Tipton (a.k.a The Lazy Cow).

Sure, there are some newcomers to these particular boards; Pop Idol star cum musical theatre regular Gareth Gates is in town this time around to take on the titular role, proving himself a fitting choice for the likeable lead, bringing along some lovely, smooth vocals as an added bonus. He’s frequently swamped by the mega watt of talent and character around him, but for the role, Gates works well. Also new along for the ride is The Bill’s Graham Cole, who makes for a wonderfully boo-hissable ‘Fleshcreep’, de facto villain of the piece.

But the real stars here are the ones whom the Grand have wisely brought back again. Adams, as mentioned, is the quintessential pantomime dame, whilst Adam C Booth is similarly perfect as slapstick comedic relief Simple Simon, once again proving himself a real favourite with the kids and young at heart in the audience. Lisa Riley returns to dazzle once more after an impressive debut at the theatre in Aladdin last year. As the kindly ‘Mother Nature’, she once again lights up the stage whenever she appears, serving up pure panto glitz, glamour and sparkle, and injecting the whole thing with boundless spirit, energy and enthusiasm. 

And then of course, there’s the sardonic, dry brilliance of viral superstar Doreen Tipton. After deservedly clutching the ‘Best Newcomer’ gong at the Great British Pantomime awards this year for her turn as the 'Lazy Empress' in Aladdin, Gill Jordan and David Tristram’s hilarious creation is back once again, only this time playing herself (it required less effort and time out of bed, I’d guess!). And whilst the character and her unique strain of comedy remains once again one of the real standouts and highlights of the show, with Jordan having now honed her performance of the character to razor-sharp perfection, she’s far better used and integrated this time round and feels a more organic part of the ensemble.

No mean feat when she is dropping one liners about child tax credits or suppositories from MFI! 

For the more ardent of panto enthusiasts out there, chances are there’ll be a few laughs, gags and set pieces you’ll already be familiar with . A madcap take on the ‘Twelve Days of Christmas’, or a quick fire spot of wordplay using foods and cereals, for instance, have been done elsewhere before, but again, this is panto and when they’re so winningly performed and masterfully executed, they’ll still likely hit you in the funnybone. For everyone else, particularly those for whom this may be a first foray into full-scale, professional panto, you’re in for a fabulously silly, wonderfully funny, family-friendly treat.

Qdos, the producers of Beanstalk, are undoubtedly the best in the biz, and every penny is up on the stage here. Whilst the show thankfully retains the slightly rudimentary, flats-and-slats, multicolour approach to production design in order retain that distinctive storybook aesthetic, Jack is still a panto that pops with visual excitement and scale. From the myriad of crazy costumes worn by Adams’ Dame Trott (far too eclectic and fabulous to spoil here), a veritable barnyard’s worth of animals donning the stage and dancing along to the odd  musical number, the imposing, booming presence of the giant Blunderbore filling the stage and towering over the stalls, through to an endless array of sparks, flashes and flourishes whenever Reilly or Cole take to the stage, it’s as colourful, arresting and exciting show to look at as its crazy cast of characters are to watch.

One of Aladdin’s biggest wobbles is rectified this time around, too. Whilst last year’s show was a little too leaning on current pop hits and a more stop-start approach to its musical interludes, Beanstalk is far more tongue-in-cheek, whilst also plucking a healthier selection of old, new... and even a dollop of musical theatre, thanks to a helping of a particularly upbeat ditty from Sister Act the Musical. And even when it all threatens to get a bit too gloopy, with Gates and love interest Jill (Sarah Vaughan) crooning a spot of Bryan Adams to one another, it has the nouse to throw Adam C Booth’s lovelorn Simple Simon into the mix, resulting in one of the evening’s funniest and most irreverent sequences.

Keep an eye out for a cameo from a cardboard cutout of Will Young, no less.

Jack and the Beanstalk plays exactly as you could hope for and expect from a panto production in 2017. Yes, there are a handful of topical cultural references, but director David Janson moderates these well. i.e. there’s the obligatory Donald Trump joke, but you’re not getting political satire or celebrity references every other line. Every role is filled - and played - as well as you could hope for, and in the likes of Doreen Tipton, the Grand once again boasts an absolutely priceless local MVP who you wouldn’t want to give away for all the magic beans in the kingdom.

Go in expecting Sondheim or Chekov and, naturally, you will be disappointed, but judged by panto standards, panto is as panto does, and few ‘does’ it better than Doreen, Lisa, Ian and the gang up ‘the Grand. A show as big, colourful and silly as the beanstalk itself, and a truly GIANT dose of family-friendly joy this festive season.

RATING - ★★★★★

Tickets: 01902 429 212  / Official Website: click