The Wimbledon pantomime has had a big ol' shake up this year. Usual producers First Family Entertainment have been ousted by behemoth super-panto-producer Qdos. Not only that, but off-beat Dame veteran and festive fringe regular Clive Rowe has stepped onto Wimbledon's more mainstream stage as Dame Trot, while comedian Al Murray takes on his first ever panto. Moreover: there's not an awkward Z-list celebrity in sight. What on earth has happened to Christmas?
Fear not. In the last few years First Family Entertainment pantos have become increasingly dire – rolling out the same old jokes, tunes and ropey sets year on year with only someone like The Hoff to help spice things up. Qdos have managed to bring the show back to something that resembles entertainment. And thank goodness for that.
With this Jack and the Beanstalk, director Thom Southerland (of small-scale musical revivals fame) focuses most effort on the rapport between Rowe and Murray and their easy connection with the audience to save the day. It means the flimsy plot is laid bare – revealing literally no build up to the relationship between hero Jack and his future wife Princess Apricot. But really, this is panto: plot is not its strong point. Instead we hope for winning gags – both for the mums, dads and the kids – some stage magic surprises, classic audience interaction and upbeat singable tunes.
Three out of four ain't bad. Murray warms the audience up with a little of his Pub Landlord set – his subversive portrayal of the anti-foreign, England-loving hard-man is reined in a little, but there's enough here to satisfy the parents in the audience. His delight at being on stage in panto is palpable and he has a fun kooky rhythm, which keeps the full age range with the action throughout. Rowe meanwhile is a hilarious delight as the Dame, prompting belly-laughs in his skits which include finding his new husband from the audience. He also works his many dresses very well.
These two essentially hold the entire show together. The choreography is very lacklustre and the songs – though they riff on tracks such as "Dancing in the Street" and "Signed, Sealed, Delivered" and are sung well by the cast – are pretty forgettable. The bigger problem comes in the second half. After an immensely enjoyable, but entirely inexplicable moment with a helicopter to finish the first, the second hour is essentially made up of a 3D film of the giant's house. It's great for a while, but begins to feel a little lazy (no sets, songs or costume changes needed here). And the action is all wrapped up at double quick time so that by the finale, that happy ending arrives so quickly, you wonder how on earth we all got there.
Still, it's indubitably better than the previous year's Christmas offerings at this theatre. If Qdos sticks with classic talent, but work a little more on the frills and story-lines, then this could work towards regaining its title as one of London's best festive treats.
Jack and the Beanstalk runs at New Wimbledon Theatre until January 14.