‘Jack and the Beanstalk’ review

Theatre, Panto
4 out of 5 stars
Jack and the Beanstalk, Hackney Empire, 2021
Photo by Manuel Harlan Clive Rowe

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

Panto veterans Clive Rowe and Tony Whittle co-direct this year’s Hackney blowout

Sorely missed last year, Hackney Empire’s beloved panto returns to us under new-old management. The show’s long-term writer-director Susie McKenna has left the building... and in has come Clive Rowe, long associated with Hackney as its dame, now doubling up on direction duties (alongside co-star Tony Whittle).

Does it feel any different? Not really, although Rowe and Whittle have turned in a less political panto than McKenna tended to, that leans less heavily into local Hackney references. It’s also blessedly shorter, clocking in at not much more than two hours – considerably more svelte than the monster running times of the previous era.

Really, though, it’s just a lovely, joyful night out, defined by Rowe’s typically glorious turn as Dame Trot: powerhouse vocals, arch audience interactions and a never-ending stream of comedy frocks. Plus a host of well-rounded supporting characters and a chunky budget: Cleo Pettitt’s flat fairytale sets are lush in the extreme, and there’s a real showstopper in the form of the enormous puppet giant, Blunderbore.

For what it’s worth, the story follows wholesome BFFs Jack (Rochelle Sherona), Jill (Ellie Ruiz Rodriguez) and Simple Simon (Kat B) as they go about their business in the cheerful but giant-ravaged town of Hackney-on-the-Verge, where Simon and Jack live with their dangerously horny widow mother (Rowe’s Dame Trot) and their cow Daisy. Things have been going downhill here ever since Blunderbore’s diabolical henchman Fleshcreep (Zoe Curlett) nicked the family’s magical harp; now Daisy has stopped producing milk and Dame Trot tearily instructs Jack to sell her... and you know what happens next.

It’s familiar, but it’s done with great love, wit and a definite eye on the kids in the audience. There’s loads of audience interaction, a genuinely very sweet turn from panto regular Kat B as the easily confused Simon, an appreciably random performance from Whittle (he wanders on to make gags about the band Queen every now and again), and a charming, effectively queer romance between Jack and Jill. Rowe is the only real vocal big gun here, and the songs are generally pleasant rather than knockout. But a concluding whole cast cover of The Beatles’ ‘Got to Get You Into My Life’ is an absolute joy, sunshine on tap.

Unlike this year’s Lyric panto – which basically has Boris Johnson in it as a character – Rowe and Whittle’s debut steers fully wide of anything even remotely contemporary, let alone political. If we got that every year it might feel a little stale. But after last year’s panto season was cancelled, this ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’ feels like a warm hug back


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