Hackneydale is in the depths of climate change: it’s been winter there for 15 years and shows no sign of stopping. Jack’s job is to save the planet, which means defeating a lovelorn giant whose magical singing harp is feeding his gold habit, and somehow causing this meteorological mess.
In this year’s Hackney Empire pantomime, it’s not only the beanstalk that is green. Reimagining Jack and the Beanstalk as a climate change fable is not only cleverly topical, as the ‘perpetual winter’ makes for perfect panto staging, allowing dancers dressed in silver to whiz across the stage on skates, a talking snowman from Jamaica to become an unlikely hero, and the residents of Hackneydale to cut a dash in their winter finery, replete with furry collars and brightly coloured hats and scarves.
The likes of Clive Rowe in the cast means strong singing is almost to be expected, and with newcomer Debbie Kurup playing Jack they’ve uncovered another gem, someone who can belt out the rasping R&B of Jessie J’s ‘Flashlight’ whilst suspended in mid-air.
Rowe himself is at his wise-cracking best as Dame Daisy Trott the milk maid, resplendent in multiple costume changes, including a cupcake dress and surreal beekeeper’s uniform.
Clumsy Colin (Darren Hart) is another strong character, a loveable wimp whose secret love for ‘eco nerd’ Molly (Georgia Oldman) gives rise to a hilariously silly version of Drake’s ‘Hotline Bling’. No corners are cut with the set and costumes, with the audience gasping as the beanstalk rises up from the middle of the stage.
Then, in the second half, which is mostly set in the giant’s lair, we meet new characters, including Giant Blunderbore himself, played by Leon Sweeney, who skilfully tramps around the stage in a costume that must measure at least 15 feet tall.
In the original tale Jack kills the giant, which isn’t exactly in the spirit of panto. So instead we learn the giant is a misunderstood lover whose attentions have turned to gold after being jilted by Mother Nature, the show’s Cockney fairy godmother (Julia Sutton).
Two hours and 40 minutes might seem a touch on the long side, but the pace is unrelenting and there are no lulls in the action. Five minutes in, and we’ve already done ‘it’s behind you’ and been treated to a round of ‘oh yes it is, oh no it isn’t’.
Writer and director Susie McKenna each year pulls a rabbit from the hat with traditional pantomimes that retain that mischievous twinkle in the eye, and this is no exception.
The script might even be funnier than last year’s – certainly it is more daring, with rude gags involving selfie-sticks (think about it), and puns galore. One word of warning though: if you’re sitting in an aisle seat take care, unless you want to run rings around Buttercup the cow in a slapstick milking routine and be the subject of Dame Daisy’s amorous gazes. But this is panto after all, and audience members looking for a quiet evening out are probably not in the right place.
Jack and the Beanstalk is at Hackney Empire, 291 Mare Street, E8 1EJ until 3 January