For the love of God don’t attempt to take an actual child to the Palladium panto this year. Theoretically, it’s a lovely family entertainment. In reality, it’s a smutty variety show manned by stars of a certain vintage, which ditches plot in favour of endless knob gags fiercely administered by a remorselessly scene-stealing Julian Clary.
This year, he plays the Spirit of the Beans. Oh, you don’t remember that being the leading role in ‘Jack in the Beanstalk’? Tough titty. The preening, endlessly witty Clary owns the stage, periodically berating poor Jack (Louis Gaunt) for interrupting him, for attempting to act or for blocking the audience’s view of Clary’s fabulous costumes. Designed by Hugh Durrant, these could form a reasonably stimulating show all on their very own: Clary appears in a glorious carnival-inspired shimmer of towering green feathers, before reappearing as a witty Napoleonic French bean, then a vegetable basket with an inevitable comically protruding cucumber.
But this isn’t a fashion show, so a little light exposition is attempted. Poor old Nigel Havers plays a king who’s kidnapped by a rampaging giant, an experience that’s presumably less frightening than being Clary’s main comic punching bag in the show (Havers is eight years his senior, so naturally, jokes about ‘has beans’ and dirty bedpans abound). So Jack’s mother Dame Trot (aka Dawn French in full West Country bumpkin mode) chucks a handful of beans on the compost heap and a giant beanstalk grows, ready for Jack to do his giant-slaying duty.
This beanstalk is arguably the most impressive thing about the show. Set designer Mark Walters’s vast inflatable plant swells to full tumescence as it reaches the Palladium’s lofty ceiling, in an appropriately phallic centrepiece to this seasonal dickfest. But Paul Zerdin’s virtuoso displays of ventriloquism and Gary Wilmot’s tongue-twisting list song make admirable set-pieces, too, thrilling a well-lubricated crowd that’s in the mood to be amused.
Blue jokes, joyful dance numbers, gasp-worthy fireworks... Michael Harrison’s production hits every possible panto mark except one, and that’s actually making you feel something. When Jack and Jill eventually get together, Clary punctures any possible outpouring of festive joy with laboured jokes about her getting honeymoon cystitis. Nice to have a vag joke among all the dicks, I guess. But it would be nice if there was something here to set seasonal hearts (instead of just genitals) aglow.