Circa rumbles and dances with Roger Hall’s Jack and the Beanstalk

Circa Theatre Presents:
Roger Hall’s JACK AND THE BEANSTALK – The Pantomime
Songs by Paul Jenden and Michael Nicholas Williams

Musical Direction by Michael Nicholas Williams
Directed by Susan Wilson

Cast: Hilda Hardup (Jack’s mother)/Aunty Pam – Gavin Rutherford
Jack – Barnaby Olson
Betsy the Cow/Goosey the Goose – Bronwyn Turei
Butcher Bob/Immigration Officer – Andrew Laing
Mrs Virus/Gertie Grabber – Emma Kinane
Claude Back/Postman – Jonathan Morgan
Smiley Virus – Jessica Old
The Giant – Himself
Freedom Campers – The Cast

Production: Ian Harman (set design), Jennifer Lal (lighting)
Sheila Horton (costumes), Leigh Evans (musical staging)

Circa Theatre, Wellington

Tuesday 22nd November, 2016
(running until December 20th)

Pantomime is surely one of the most life-enhancing experiences theatre can offer, and Circa Theatre’s current Jack and the Beanstalk production ticks all the boxes that matter in the genre – it wasn’t long after the show’s beginning before the harshest, most vocal critics in the audience were soon caught up in it all, making manifest their involvement in the tale’s twists and turns, to the added delight, I might say, of their rather less demonstrative, though still appreciative, older companions.

Though Roger Hall’s script had some occasional over-worn moments, it was enlivened by the unflagging energy and interactive spark of the characters, buoyed up by frequent topical references to circumstances in the “real world”, some of which of course made the stage goings-on seem eminently sane by comparison! Indigenous touches like the chorus’s opening song making references to early-morning tuis and moreporks gradually became politicised by Jack’s Mother, Hilda Hardup (Gavin Rutherford’s a superbly-sustained portrayal throughout) in her following song about the depressed state of village life – “miserable and sad”, mercilessly tagging the family’s location as “Lesterville, until recently Wade-Browntown”.

Sensibilities of all ages were further tickled by the uneasy thrill of occasional seismic “noises-off” emanating from different regions, and explanations related to the same, an audience favourite being “Gerry Brownlee suffering from a nasty bout of liquefaction” (I actually became fearful for the well-being of the person sitting next to me over THAT one!). And almost, but not quite, in the league of a “strip-o-gram” was NZ Post’s outlandish “go-go-dancer” delivery of a parcel to Mother, whose self-confessed response to social privation was to become an on-line shop-a-holic!

The age-old storytelling theme of poverty and the business of trying to make ends meet has, of course become more of a reality for a good many New Zealanders in recent times – the frequent appearances of “Claude Back” the repossession man (Jonathan Morgan a kind of surreal “trickster”, his aspect and stage movements beautifully Chaplin-esque), the nouveau-riche landlady Mrs Virus, (Emma Kinane, elegantly chirruping her personal wealth-creation agenda) and Butcher Bob, merely wanting his money for sausages (Andrew Laing, adroitly fusing touches of a “mad-butcher” manner with more pressing very real small-business concerns) entertained our sensibilities with their actions, while bringing home to us the plight of their “victims” such as Jack and his Mother, the people whom the capitalist system regards as “losers”.

Speaking of our eponymous hero, Jack embodied all the archetypal fairy-tale qualities of a young, self-effacing, lovable, if somewhat indolent and disorganised lad-about-town – someone upon whom fortune will surely and deservedly come to shine! Here, it couldn’t have happened to a nicer fellow, Barnaby Olson’s artlessly engaging portrayal winning our hearts on all the above fronts, and engaging our sympathies in his quest to secure the affections of his would-be sweetheart, the self-regarding Smiley Virus, with actress Jessica Old’s “bouncing bimbo” selfies-saturated entrance as Smiley almost worthy of a 1930s Hollywood talkies spectacular!

Besides his mother and Smiley, Jack’s other meaningful relationship is with Betsy the Cow, here given a virtuoso performance by Bronwyn Turei which transformed the beast’s normally passive character into a wannabe starlet, desperate for her gifts to be recognised – the cow’s almost erogenous response to being milked by Jack produced great amusement as well as a surprising end-result! Later in the story Turei again made something theatrically distinctive of Betsy’s stratospheric “mirror-image”, Goosey, the Giant’s source of wealth as the producer of the famed Golden Eggs – all most enjoyable!

Throughout the action the energies, the zany characterisations and the outlandish one-liners kept our attentions stoked, with the songs and their stage realisations providing the requisite contrast with the stand-and-deliver pronouncements of the script, Leigh Evans’ on-the-spot choreography and Michael Nicholas Williams’ unflagging musical zest giving the performers’ trajectories surety and purpose. And, corny though some of the pronouncements were, the performers made both context and surprise work to the ideas’ advantage time and time again, as when the glamorous Smiley arrived to give Betsy the Cow a “makeover” in preparation for the Market – (whoops! – “show”!), with the throwaway line, “keeping up with the Cowdashians!”.

Important, too that the local environs were utilised in this process, enabling that all-important phenomenon of a group of people laughing at themselves and registering life’s basic absurdities – the second-half ascent to the Giant’s upper realms simply but most effectively realised , with mists and strange, evocative lighting employed to create a sense of “the heights” – one of the characters summed up the transformation with the words “it’s other worldly! – a bit like Stokes Valley!”

Ultimately, the show’s success depended upon palpable engagement with the audience – and this was achieved throughout most heart-warmingly, and nowhere more so than at the beginning of the second half, when the audience’s children were invited onto the stage for a kind of “rumble”, singing and dancing to the song “It’s a pantomime world”, which went down well on both sides of the footlights.

Elsewhere I enjoyed the creative inspiration, communication skills and technical know-how on show, brought out ahead of impressive spectacle and wow-factor jiggery-pokery, thus requiring we in the audience to be actively engaged rather than passively observing. Still remembering how open-mouthedly magical theatrical performance of any kind was for me as a child, I thought Susan Wilson’s direction of the revamped classic tale similarly and successfully engaged its youthful clientele, and took people such as myself back some of the way to those same realms of delight and wonderment.

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