Another of our now regular yuletide practices is to pay a visit to Sheffield on the first Saturday of January to see the Lyceum panto at the matinee, and whatever spectacular is on at the Crucible in the evening; and each year it continues to pay dividends. I have a very soft spot for Jack and the Beanstalk as it was the first pantomime I ever saw; January 1st 1969 at the London Palladium, aged 8. I’d seen a few amateur plays at the local memorial hall but this was not only my first panto but also my first visit to a London theatre. Since then, I think it’s safe to say, I haven’t looked back. Jack was Jimmy Tarbuck; the Dame was Arthur Askey; and like all those late 60s/early 70s Palladium pantos there were Charlie Cairoli and Company (who I loved), Ivor Emmanuel, and host of other variety acts interspersed. I remember very clearly that the opening song was the villagers singing Manfred Mann’s “My Name is Jack”, which introduced Jimmy Tarbuck as being the chief of the wayward boys and girls who lived in the Greta Garbo home – Google the lyrics if that doesn’t make any sense to you. I think I was so ecstatic at being there that the memory is imprinted on my brain. Funny how something simple like that can stay with you for a lifetime.
The Palladium panto was always a stylish, flashy, music- and dancing-packed affair, with the latest in technological elements (such as they were then). The recently finished Derngate panto, Sleeping Beauty, was very much in that vein. Then there is another kind of panto, where 3D effects and big star names take a back seat, and the show relies more on traditional routines, and a funny script, and the annual Sheffield panto is a perfect example. For Jack in the Beanstalk, Sheffield’s favourite Damian Williams returned for his sixth consecutive panto season, and he’s already signed up for Dick Whittington this December. Why break a winning run? You’ve never seen an audience so happy to welcome back an old favourite, and Mr Williams absolutely knows how to keep the crowd in a constant state of laughter. He’s also really gifted at appealing to the adults too, with a quick witted turn of phrase that might occasionally befuddle the kids but will have all the grown-ups guffawing. And he knows that sacrificing one’s personal dignity is all part of the game – for which much thanks, if only for his phenomenal appearance as Miley Cyrus with her wrecking ball. Just brilliant! As long as Mr Williams keeps coming back to Sheffield, so will we.
Jack was played by Ian H Watkins, or H from Steps as he’s better known; cue lots of gags about how brilliant S Club 7 were. Messrs Watkins and Williams had a good double act going, where both would readily step out of character and be themselves defending their careers. They used the pop music theme for the annual patter gag scene – this year it was the names of groups and singers all strung together to make a story, and very clever and funny it was too. Sarah Earnshaw was the Vegetable Fairy, who spoke in rhyming couplets that were actually witty, had some good comic accents and I for one was very happy to give her a big cheer every time she appeared. Andrew Fettes was the Giant’s villainous sidekick Hefferflumphenstein, whose running gag about how his name should be pronounced was used perhaps a couple of times too many; but he was suitably wicked and it was very kind of him to allow us to call him Shorty.
Madeleine Leslay was a very pure and pretty Princess Tamara; cue for a sequence of puns with “tomorrow” that we were encouraged to count out as the show progressed. I bumped into her (literally) in the Crucible Corner bar later that evening and just managed to stop myself from saying, “sorry Princess”; which would have been quite embarrassing. There was a nice twist that whenever anyone talked about infiltrating the Giant’s lair at the top of the Beanstalk, it was to save Molly the Cow and the Lyceum bench (more of which shortly) rather than the Princess, whom they kept on forgetting. Pete Dunwell was a larger than life King Eric, a buffoon who assists the Dame in mixing the ingredients to make ice-cream and literally uses his head, as the Dame suggested. Cue for a tarpaulin on the stage to catch all the slimy goo so we can quickly move on to the next scene. The talented ensemble of six singing and dancing adult boys and girls gave great support and added a little eye-candy to the proceedings together with some good hearted fun. And we all went crazy with the peas; soft green balls that we all had to throw at the stage when the Fairy said we could to help beat the Giant. I managed to get hold of one chucking pea, but the little lad next to me didn’t get one, so I selflessly let him have my pea. He was thrilled; but he was useless at throwing it. Never mind, we still defeated the Giant. The band were great as usual, under the direction of Andy Booth, and the junior ensemble were very well schooled and fun to watch.
A couple of years ago, it seemed like every panto we saw was blighted by that wretched dog Churchill going “oh yes” or “oh no”, presumably as a sop to the insurance company that was sponsoring the show. This year at Sheffield we had Molly the Cow. Now, of course, the cow is an intrinsic part of the show. Jack thinks he’s getting a big bag of gold in return for her but he is duped by the wicked Hefferflumphenstein and only gets a handful of beans; and of course the pantomime cow is sister to the pantomime horse (so to speak), and so definitely has her place in the show. But I did think they overplayed the association of Molly the Cow with Sheffield Theatres’ interval ice-cream of choice, Our Cow Molly. Having said that, I loved Mr Williams saying that if your parents don’t buy you an ice-cream in the interval, that is a proven fact that they don’t love you. I hope no one took it seriously! Similarly, the constant references to the Lyceum Theatre bench, which is also captured by the Giant, actually meant that when the bench scene finally takes place (“it’s behind you”) I thought it slightly lost its usual impact. I think it’s funnier with ghosties than with zombies. Nevertheless, that bench had better still be there next year!
Those are very minor quibbles by the way. It’s an extremely fun, fast-paced and entertaining panto, and we’ll definitely be back for Dick Whittington!