[Review:] JACK AND THE BEANSTALK, Theatre Peckham, London.
I have seen quite a few shows produced by Theatre Peckham and its young actor-training programme, and I must admit that this performance was rather disappointing, knowing what is usually achieved.
I shall start with what is first presented to the audience: set. Set was definitely very wild in its design, and this was not necessarily a negative thing. It had a bright and vibrant colour scheme, met with various patterns and geometries, and this was definitely eye-catching and otherworldly. The addition of blacklight patterns –– invisible painted plant and vine designs which illuminate under blacklight to signify what I shall call the "Upper World" –– was definitely awe-inspiring and magical and of just the right amount so as not to be under-/overwhelming. The main issue I have with this set, however, is that it remained far too stationary. There was an extreme lack of workability, meaning that interactions with it were either impossible or unseemly. There was an overuse of curtains across gaps through which props and articles were passed, and these were far too rigid, meaning that hands on the other side were often visible.
On that note, certain sections of the stage were far too translucent. The overall height of the set was also considerably short, and these two facts together meant that it was oftentimes the case that actors or stagehands could be seen backstage, passing across from wing to wing or readying items for the next scene. This is all highly destructive of illusion and must be avoided. Unless about to enter the stage, performers should keep well distanced from the set and, most obviously, well out of sight.
The first character to enter the stage is Mrs Trott (Michael Bertenshaw). Bertenshaw enters slowly and nonchalantly, only to sit to the side of the stage and softly play a ukulele. A small "Oh, I didn't see you there!", and the performance beings. This is a most dissatisfying beginning. The Pantomime Dame continues to be a vital and, above all, self-mockingly gaudy and ostentatious feature of a pantomime. They are ludicrous in both their attire and attitude. In this opening, Bertenshaw does not seem, unfortunately, to fit the bill. I imagine that the comedic value of this opening was supposed to be rooted in this nonchalance, that we would find the severity and self-accepting nature of Mrs Trott’s entrance to be hilarious enough. Timing, I am afraid, is what made this so displeasing.
To start with this particular stock character is a bold decision in itself, particularly as, especially even in this performance, she is by no means a main character, be it a narrator or other, but a comic character. I would recommend something extra to really draw attention to her character’s ridiculousness, with thought to comedic timing but, more importantly, to the element of surprise. Perhaps dramatic fairytale music, melodious and dainty to contrast with her butch appearance. Perhaps she comes out backwards, adjusts the curtain primly and turns to reveal her subversive manly features. In all circumstances imaginable, the ludicrousness of this stock character must be emphasised in a most ostentatious way; she should only be accepted into the narrative once this farcical and dramatic introduction has been carried out. As for the ukulele, this must also subvert expectations in order to be seen as comical. It should be whipped out from nowhere once Mrs Trott is seated, and Mrs Trott should ready herself for a complex and intricate musical rendition, all but for the sound of a tinny string.
The song that follows is much too slow, not in terms of rhythm but in terms of the time it consumes. The pace of this beginning is rather dreadful, I must say, and there is very little to give us an idea of who Mrs Trott actually is, besides a title and a few not-particularly-impressive jokes. However, this improves significantly as the performance goes on, and Mrs Trott becomes a much more cogent feature of the performance. Jokes become much better tailored, and comedic timing improves considerably.
I should emphasise here that my issue is not with Bertenshaw’s performance, per se, as I found him to be a most convincing and talented performer; my issue is more with what is being asked of him by the writing (Paul Sirett) itself.
I found the writing to be doing the bare minimum to qualify as a pantomime. It expects its audience to understand the key features of pantomimes, to participate as and where necessary, and this ignores that the bulk of the audience will be children, and, very likely, children who have not yet seen any pantomimes. Classic callings, such as boos and awws are just expected of the audience in this performance, and there are no appropriate cues. For example, typical phrases such as "Oh, yes we are!" are worked into dialogue ambiguously and unemphatically, and it is simply expected that audience members will just catch on and join in in the usual pantomimic way; there are no gestures, no preparation, nothing. This pantomime omits classic components such as ghost scenes, slosh scenes, chase scenes, etc. and actually starts to become more like a self-contained play with semi-frequent audience interaction.
Audience participation is a story unto itself. Getting audience members to come up onto the stage is generally extremely laborious to set up, anyway, not to mention time-consuming. The result must therefore be qualitative and productive. It was not. Late in the performance, audience members are gathered for a line-up and are quickly dismissed one by one. And that pretty much sums that up. Again, there is no extraneous effort, just the bare minimum. The last two interactions are particularly lacklustre, as Biz (Michael Gonsalves) simply states that those audience members are too big and begs Buzz not to choose them.
The use of innuendoes and adult humour is fruitful, and the text makes for a clever repertoire of wordplay. Also effective are jokes which subvert expectation, such as the line "I've lost the buzz, Biz" or Mrs Trott’s "three-point turn", as are satirical jokes with a sociopolitical nature, such as Mrs Trott’s comment on the absence and promise of police. However, I must say that some of these became somewhat overused. There are definitely moments of hilarity in this performance, one personal favourite being Henrietta’s (Tamara McKoy-Patterson) rather explosive and glorious egg-laying, and actors definitely make this otherwise thorny text as enjoyable as possible. Yet, again, issues do often arise with comedic timing, one good example of this being Dizzy’s (Luis Gustavo Silva Navarro) final entrance, where characters before him are greeted and hugged by Mrs Trott and he, being invisible to them, is ignored and hence dejected. This gag is permitted to fade into the background, just as equally unmarked others.
Why Jack has an imaginary friend in the first place, however, is rather questionable, as is the presence of a few other characters. Dizzy even disappears for a huge part of the text, and the narrative of his disappearance because Jack is “too old now” — despite there being relatively no real passing of time — is just entirely irrelevant and unnecessary. A similar fate takes the Young Detective who, really, does no detecting whatsoever and whose only ultimate function seems to be to act as the love interest of Jack — not a particularly progressive message for young audiences: a young female character carrying the illusion of liberty, empowerment and adventure yet who succumbs to being a damsel in distress, then, finally, a reward/trophy of sorts and simultaneously an object of desire…
In fact, the way many characters are introduced into and attached to the plot is something I find particularly irksome in this performance. Shaun the Poet’s character, for example –– played by a wonderful and estimable young actor –– seems to just appear into the narrative without any real pertinence. Given that he appears so frequently and that he possesses the magic beans which, of course, are later traded for Jack’s cow, one would assume that his character would be better worked into the story and made to be more fundamental. He seems to take on the role of a narrator but comments on the less important features of the story, appears irregularly, and is only introduced towards the middle of the first half.
It even takes a while for Biz and Buzz to really concretise themselves as the villains of this performance, their actions definitely speaking louder than their words. With these characters, we find a similar problem as mentioned earlier in this review when considering Mrs Trott’s entrance. There is no sense of drama in their entrances and exits, and especially no time allotted for calling. How these characters relate to the text is furthermore complicated by Biz’s yearning to be good, to stop her evildoings and open a B&B by the beach. This yearning is completely unspoken of again until the very end of the performance, and Biz continues to be evil without any sincere hesitation. Again, a remarkable young performer — in fact, one of the best for her age — but whose character remains an incoherent and unconvincing element to this struggling and, frankly, extremely poor text.
On the topic of actors, acting abilities are good in this performance, and it is the sheer energy and vitality that these actors possess that make it watchable. I was delighted to see the children play an integral role, as seldom the case, with children even having leading roles. This programme is certainly composed of great, talented and endearing young performers, and all are delightful to watch.
A few final notes on props, costume and tech. Props certainly could have been more ridiculous in this performance and composed a spectrum from effective to awful, awful being the use of the quilt as a sheet of pastry to wrap up Mrs Fleece (Yinka Williams), for example, or, in that same scene, the practically invisible hand-ties around the Cow and the Young Detective.
As for costume, I found this to be particularly mismatched, with costumes such as Mrs Trott’s second frock or Mrs Fleece’s dress and wig, being especially elaborate and well-tailored, contrasting against Harpo’s (Kitty Hollingsworth) eyesore of a dress or the Young Detective’s particularly pedestrian top and skirt. Headpieces and other articles also persisted to fall off, signalling a poor consideration of assemblage. I did find, however, the ogre suit to be quirky and original. An editorial issue again, and a rather negligible comment, but I do fail to see why there is an ogre and not a giant as in the original tale. At first, I thought this a rather clever way of getting around presenting a giant on stage; I thought that the ogre would be a great, human-sized replacement, but then, enter the GIGANTIC ogre, and I find myself rather bemused as to why the tale was changed in the first place (or not changed back).
Leading me on to tech, I do have a comment as well on the ogre’s microphone, on a prominent stand and pressed against the ogre’s face. This was most unseemly and could have been avoided by an out-of-sight microphone with an increased gain, if setting up a bodyworn microphone really was that difficult. On this topic, microphones were not attached/positioned correctly, and this made for persistent rustlings throughout the performance. Volume also presented its issues, particularly over the loud music.
Music was very well composed (by Wayne Nunes and Perry Melius), yet songs were particularly unmemorable, especially those unrepeated and practically irrelevant. This is also due to the consistent issue with volume levels, however, with the music being much too loud and vocals being far too quiet. Regarding irrelevant songs, I am completely confounded as to why Harpo, a rather negligible character up until this point at the very end of the performance, completely commandeers the stage for the show’s finale, with her ‘Scene Queen’ song [which could have benefited from better diction from Hollingsworth]. Why this song was not about Jack, and why Harpo so acceptably nominates herself as the queen of the scene, I have absolutely no idea. I will say, however, that this is the best choreographed scene. Otherwise, on the whole, choreography was rather good, but scenes lacking specific choreographed movement for the background ensemble, in particular, suffered because of it.
One particularly mesmerising use of sound was during the transitional scene involving the growing beanstalk. This was most transportive, particularly with the use of lighting. In this scene, as with a few others, lights spin into the audience, and this makes for a most immersive experience. The stroboscopic lighting [which SHOULD come with a pre-warning for those with epilepsy and suchlike conditions, particularly with an audience of children], also taking to the audience when the beanstalk is cut and the ogre killed, is very effective, too; it is just worrying that the only efficacy in this scene came from the lighting alone and nothing else. Sound did not add up with action whilst Jack axes the beanstalk down, and plot-wise, nothing really happens in this scene; were are just to accept that the ogre is dead, with very little information other than a simple declaration of this fact to go off of. Then, cue the show-stealing Scene Queen… This was an ending most lacking in impact.