Director Chris Lawson’s first panto at Oldham Coliseum is a belter. And it has the best pantomime cow I have ever seen, in any pantomime, anywhere. There are other firsts here, too. Richard J Fletcher gives up his usual Idle Jack and puts on the Dame’s frock for the first time, taking over from Finetime Fontayne, and local boy Sam Glen takes on Idle Jack.
Fontayne continues to write with Lawson but, keeping up with the times, they have moved the traditional plot along with the giant stealing all the IT, phones and tablets from the locals in order to…no, no spoilers here. We still get the good fairy, the magic beans, the beanstalk and lots of ‘oh yes you did’ action, so traditional expectations are amply satisfied.
Fletcher’s Dame is not a bawdy as Fontayne’s, but that may be the direction. In the past, I found myself squirming slightly at some of the gags. This year I occasionally thought ‘wow, that was sophisticated’ while laughing my socks off. On the first public performance Fletcher, along with everybody else, was finding out where the laughs were. A week of school performances does little to prepare you for a grown-up audience who know the form and playing a Dame takes practice. On this showing, Fletcher and the others should be at the top of their game soon.
Glen is a charming Jack who sings beautifully and is considerably less exhausting to watch than Fletcher used to be. Shorelle Hepkin gives a powerful Jill, cleverer and more daring than Jack, and that is as it should be. Patrick Bridgeman as Lord Thickpenny Grabmuch is a rather lovable upper class baddy not nearly as objectionable as, say, Jacob Rees-Mogg. I bet he’ll be in panto once we kick him out just like Widdecombe was.
Sophie Mercell as Lord Thickpenny’s butler Grotton ought to be a broker’s man, a proper baddy, but here the plot requires her to be quite nice, really. So who are we going to boo? Ah, there she is, Jenny Platt playing Mavis Moorside, wife to Giant Moorside, and heartless to the core. We booed our hearts out too.
Mitesh Soni gave us his cow. What a cow. He doubles as a Wizard of Oz-style giant, but it’s the cow we will remember. We’ll be chewing it over till next year and wondering how do you follow that?
The chorus of dance school kids were, as usual, very good indeed.
Celia Perkins designs with clear mastery of the form. I particularly liked her beanstalk and her giant with its allusion to a well-known cartoon character. Sound and light were perfectly managed and did exactly what they were supposed to do. But if you’re going to tell people to turn off their mobile phones, can you please tell parents to not let their children use those appalling light sabre windmill things that you’re selling in the foyer?
This panto is great fun. I know pantomime is not everyone’s cup of tea, but I celebrate the traditional panto with proper actors playing a local show for local people and not a series of club acts and celebs doing personal appearances. Oldham has always been good at panto, dating back to the time of Kenneth Alan Taylor – King, or should that be Queen, of Dames. The new team look well set to carry on that tradition of excellence. If you’re a panto fan, go and see it. And if you’re not, go anyway. Go for the cow.
By Chris Wallis, Theatre Editor
Jack and the Beanstalk runs at Oldham Coliseum Theatre until January 11, 2020. For more information, or to book tickets, click here.