The Shrewsbury panto has a stellar reputation as one of the best in the UK. This year’s production of Jack and the Beanstalk at Theatre Severn stars Rita the Wonderdog alongside Brad Fitt, Tommy J Rollason and crew, with Reece Duncan in the role of Jack.
The Shrewsbury pantomime is so well established these days, that panto dame/director Brad Fitt and scriptwriter Paul Hendy could almost magic it on the hoof (or falling off the Ghost Bench!).
They barely have a week of rehearsal time to pull it together before opening night and yet always deliver one of the best UK Christmas shows, with a sharp script and hysterical and much-loved sequences (the joke cart) and lashings of theatrical slosh.
Audiences in Shrewsbury now book their tickets for the following year before their seats have cooled - this year’s panto Jack and the Beanstalk tipped 30K sales by mid October.
Lucky are the chosen few dancers, actors and singers that get to hop on board with Brad and Evolution Productions; Shrewsbury is surely one of the hottest gigs on the panto circuit.
Reece Duncan as Jack in Jack and the Beanstalk at Theatre Severn, Shrewsbury
We caught up with Reece Duncan who plays Jack, swapping life on tour with the West End and Broadway smash-hit musical Rock of Ages for the country boy fairytale character.
‘Will he deploy power ballads against the giant?’ we asked.
“You’ve basically got the plot,” Reece laughs. “You’ll have to wait and see.”
Reece knows what he’s in for, having played Peter Pan in Inverness last year: “I’ve gone from flying to chopping down beanstalks! I’m really excited to be here. The beauty of panto is that it really is for everyone to come along and have a laugh - and see how much fun we have on the stage.”
This year’s lineup also includes West End star Lucas Rush as panto baddie Luke Backinanger (cue the soundtrack!) and comedian juggler Tommy J Rollason as Billy.
Brad Fitt will of course be reprising the part of panto dame, in the form of Jack’s mother, the eccentric Dame Trott: “Same part, different name!” says Brad, who occupies a special place in our hearts after 11 years of the Shrewsbury panto (Jack and the Beanstalk will be his 12th). It’s a chance for Brad to shine out front away from his ‘day job’ as associate producer for PW Productions. Recently he's been working on the Woman in Black touring show and also directed the Tales from Acorn Wood based on the book by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler.
It’s always a hectic run in Shrewsbury with up to three shows per day throughout the season and just a few hours off at Christmas. Brad does the quick turnaround from his home in Norfolk, leaving at 6am on Boxing Day to get back to Theatre Severn on time. It’s why he’s now house hunting in Shropshire!
He promises that Jack and the Beanstalk will stick to its magic formula of stock comedy scenes (“there would be uproar if we lost the ghost bench,” Brad says) but with some specialty acts - very possibly featuring Rita the Wonderdog - and with a weather-themed, soap-based ‘slosh’ routine. If we know Evolution, they’ll likely keep some major surprises up their sleeves for opening night too (remember the ‘Screen of Love’ last year?!).
“I’m sure there will be more surprises,” Brad adds. “It’s lovely to be working with Tommy (J Rollason) who I adored working with last year. We’re both Norfolk boys. It’s nice when you have that rapport where you both know what the other one is going to do before they do it. “There are some really funny costumes this year, I can’t wait for people to see them.”
Tommy J Rollason is also back this year as Billy - we can expect some high jinks!
Tommy, who is the son of Rollo the Entertainer, has been working as a comedian juggler on cruise ships during the past year following his appearance on Britain’s Got Talent. He was mesmerising as the cheeky-chappy comedian Jangles in Beauty and the Beast in Shrewsbury last Christmas.
“I’m looking forward to Jack and the Beanstalk as there’s a lot of story in it and a lot of slapstick,” he says . “I do like a good slosh routine and it’s great that Brad and I get on so well on stage. When I’m working on jokes for my routines, it’s always the physical comedy that comes to me first.
“Last year Brad and I were doing the cart routine at the end of a three show day and it just crashed - we were pulling the wrong cards out at the wrong time. But we managed to pull it back and the audience seemed to love it in the end!”
That’s the great thing about panto - we love it especially when it goes wrong. One thing is for sure, you’re guaranteed an hilarious night out at the Shrewsbury panto. And we all know that laughter is good for the soul. See you there!
Jack and the Beanstalk is at Theatre Severn from Wednesday, November 29th, 2023 until Sunday, January 7th 2024. Tickets £17 - £29 from theatresevern.co.uk or contact (01743) 281281.