Iain Lauchlan, the writer, director, and star of the Belgrade’s Christmas pantomime, is almost as much an institution as the Christmas panto itself. He is an absolute master of the art. This year sees him return as Dame Trott, milkmaid extraordinaire, alongside his trusty companion and knock-about pal Craig Hollingsworth as Simple Simon in Jack and The Beanstalk. Last year’s show was dazzlingly loud and proud, but this year’s even surpasses that. It is two and a half hours of riotous fun, filled like a Christmas stocking with all the expected goodies, but with that unmistakable Iain Lauchlan magic. From his first familiar cry of Hull-oo-oo! to the final chorus via the essential meringue pie scene, it’s non-stop fun.
He and Craig Hollingsworth know exactly how to work the audience with jokes, repartee, double-entendres, ad-libs, and exquisite timing; and the audience know exactly how to respond in turn. It’s not just the sing-along songs, such as Simon’s ‘Prickly Bottom Chippy’ (repeat ad nauseum), it’s the way the audience members who are called up on stage are encouraged to upstage the stars with their natural wit and charm. I've seen it before on the Belgrade stage: something about the event brings out the performer in six- and seven-year-olds as well as adults. It works beautifully.
Not that they’re the only young ones on stage. Troupes of young actors and dancers contribute to the show’s magic, acting as wise chorus to the goodies, and a mean team of cockroaches (Ensemble) to the baddies. The Giant himself (Lewis James) is a splendid creation, ten feet tall, and with an appetite to match. His counterpart on stage is Daisy the Cow, a real pantomime cow, made up of Lewis James and Hudson Tong, whose fate triggers the whole story.
The village of Prickly Bottom is troubled by the awesome wrath of The Giant, whose sidekick, the evil Fagin-like Fleshcreep (Andy Hockley), has been sent to steal a golden harp belonging to King Kevin (David Gilbrook). Dashing hero Jack Trott (Morna Macpherson) is determined to stop him, but when Fleshcreep kidnaps the King’s daughter Princess Poppy (Rochelle Hollis) things look dire. Simple Simon, meanwhile, has sold the Trott’s beloved Daisy to make some much needed cash. Only, instead of five gold coins he sells her to the beautiful Fairy Fennel (Emma Mulkern) for five magic beans. When Simon throws them down the well the result is a magnificent sprouting beanstalk which grows on stage before our very eyes all the way up to the ceiling and into the Giant’s lair.
Extravagant as all this is, it would be nothing without the Dame’s amazing costumes. Whether adorned with milk bottles and udders, flower pots and jumping beans, carrots, a big jar of sweets, or a can of baked beans, they are all marvels of comic couture. The set, too, is big, bold and colourful, the perfect setting for the mayhem upon it.
In this age when electronic media and CGI seem to dominate every aspect of our lives it is good to see an age-old form of live theatre capture the hearts of people of all ages and backgrounds.
Jack and the Beanstalk runs until January 7. Visit belgrade.co.uk to book.