This is Phil Willmott’s 11th year of writing and directing the pantomime at the Newbury Corn Exchange and he has clearly hit upon a winning recipe. Jack and the Beanstalk is a well-crafted pantomime with a solid script.
As Billy Bumpkin, Matthew Grace reprises a well-loved character. Grace builds an easy rapport with the audience and his grin is infectious, though he does struggle to keep a straight face when his character is supposed to be serious.
Billy Bumpkin and Dame Betty Bumpkin (Eamonn Fleming) hype up the audience with some well-judged participation, getting us to pelt giant baked bean balloons at the stage. There are, however, some missed opportunities for comedy: despite a running gag about Daisy the cow entering the Eurovision song cow-petition, she never actually sings.
The musical numbers, deftly choreographed by Daniel Maguire and arranged by Richard Baker, are impressive. Highlights include a number performed in circus costumes that concludes Act I and an Abba medley. The ensemble gives energetic performances and is ably led vocally by Emma Fraser as Fairy Alfalfa and Joshua Coley as Pickle Onion.
The pantomime as a whole has a fairy-tale feel, especially in the quadruple-wedding that concludes the show. The leafy green set and the glittery costumes, though standard panto-fare, complement this aesthetic.
The moral of the story is “It’s OK to be different”. However, the pantomime itself could do with slightly more innovation to lift it from the formulaic.