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Natasha Tripney: Panto this lazy gives the whole genre a bad name

Clive Rowe and Al Murray in Jack and the Beanstalk at New Wimbledon Theatre. Photo: Craig Sugden Clive Rowe and Al Murray in Jack and the Beanstalk at New Wimbledon Theatre. Photo: Craig Sugden
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It’s that time of year again. The time of year when I start to question whether some psychotropic substance has found its way into my advent calendar chocolates – or did I really watch Al Murray pilot a toy helicopter over a stage filled with people dressed as sheep?

I’ll admit that I’m something of a panto agnostic. I’ve tried, believe me I’ve tried, but I simply don’t get them. I was not taken to see them when growing up, and I have yet to acquire the habit as an adult (other habits, yes, but not this one).

I understand that they form a vital pillar of the industry but I find them loud, crude and bemusing. I grasp that, at their best, they are rooted in community and have a creative consistency unmatched elsewhere, with the same performers, the same jokes even, recurring year after year. But still I remain unconvinced.

This year’s New Wimbledon offering, Jack and the Beanstalk, did nothing to change my mind. No longer under the First Family umbrella, it’s now one of the Qdos tentpole shows. Directed by the usually reliable Thom Southerland, it stars Al Murray and former Hackney Empire stalwart Clive Rowe, a panto legend. Such a team suggests polish and maybe even a degree of subversion – but no.

Jack and the Beanstalk review at New Wimbledon Theatre, London – ‘desperately lacking in imagination’

Rowe plays the dame, while Al Murray plays her dim innkeeper son, brother to Jack, here a sort of sentient puddle in velour leggings. Murray is not without presence as a performer and he has a well executed sing-off with a “volunteer” from the audience, but he’s basically doing a diluted version of his rabidly nationalist Pub Landlord routine shorn of its satirical origins: a load of jokes about the French and a “white wine for the ladies” pitched at a roomful of bemused kids.

The whole thing feels so lazy – sans plot, sans peril, sans everything – not to mention weirdly crass for something aimed at a family crowd. There are plentiful jokes about booze care of Murray and the only vaguely topical reference we get concerns Meghan Markle’s taste for ginger nuts.

Rowe dresses up as Wonder Woman but in a manner that suggests they had a costume knocking about rather than in reference to DC’s recent cinematic output. In a year where we’ve had a mainstream female-led action movie, this feels like one of (many) opportunities missed.

My issue is with the kind of lazy, going-through-the-motions pantomime that thoughtlessly recycles dated material when the world has changed

The characters of the fairy and the princess are near-interchangeable nothings, spangly and drippy in equal measure. Of course the princess and Jack decide they love one another within 30 seconds of clapping eyes on one another and, of course, she is immediately kidnapped – and this is before we even get to the moment where an entire musical number is devoted to the princess’ attempts to avoid Flesh Creep’s wandering tongue and hands that’s so spectacularly misjudged it deserves a prize.

I know I risk sounding joyless by complaining about this and, yes, I know: not all panto. I’ve had a blast at recent productions at Theatre Royal Stratford East and the Lyric Hammersmith. Their shows made me appreciate panto’s power to unify and delight.

My issue is with the kind of lazy, going-through-the-motions pantomime that thoughtlessly recycles dated material even though the world has changed. It might be ‘just’ a panto but it reaffirms the idea that girls are there to be chased and/or saved, and does so under a dusting of smut, fart jokes and halfheartedly shoehorned-in nods to Kingston and Mitcham to make it feel local. The audience deserves better than this.

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