Katy Rink returns from a stress-busting opening night at Jack and The Beanstalk and declares this year's Evolution panto at Theatre Severn a GIANT success!
For variously unthrilling reasons, I was full of stress (and late) arriving for press night at the 'big reveal' of the new panto Jack and The Beanstalk at Theatre Severn.
As I found my seat, the audience was already in full-on belly-laugh mode. I soon joined them in falling under the spell of a superb new lineup of characters, sensing all that stuff-that-shouldn't-matter leaving my body.
It’s very merry chaos from start to finish. The storyline sprouts, loosely, from the original plot of Jack and his enchanted beans, but has been hilariously embellished. Without giving too much away, Giant Blunderball is not who he seems. The real baddie is the scathingly demonic Luke Backinanger who almost steals the show (along with Delilah the cow) in his pique-driven bid for the total annihilation of the jolly Land of Chucklemore. Played by Lucas Rush (The Cher Show, Evita, Rock of Ages), he had the audience hanging on every eye roll. He’s deliciously bad, with the grandiose swag of Lord Flashheart - just don’t talk to him about The X Factor, it’s very triggering for him. Backinanger’s therapy sessions and the dancing zombies’ take on The Killers were marvellous set pieces.
Brad Fitt as Dame Trott with Tommy J Rollason (Billy) and Erin Armstrong (Jess) during final rehearsals
The now legendary panto Dame Brad Fitt assumes his usual fabulously brilliant alter-ego ("Dame Trott.. this year") supported by his trusted young sidekick, the comedian Tommy J Rollason, in the role of Billy. There can be no smarter, or more compelling Dame than Brad in the UK, but Tommy is the golden boy of the show, delivering hilarious, off-the-cuff improv when lines go awry, and comfortably holds his own. With his big smile and blusher-brushed cheeks he shimmers with star quality - and still only 20-years-old! Keep an eye on this one.
High energy, imaginatively choreographed musical medleys make use of Reece Duncan’s mighty, Scottish rock voice (who said Jack was a weakling?) which could carry a show all of its own. A graduate of Emil Dale Academy, he’s been touring with Rock of Ages and has a very fine instrument on board. I wish we could have heard more of it. He’s not the only one who can belt it out; the additional voices of Erin Armstrong as Jess, and Laura-Dene-Perryman (Fairy Sugarsnap - the lovely ‘Vegetable Fairy’) made this panto musically more exciting than in previous years. Producer Paul Hendy discovered Scottish actress Erin at the Edinburgh Fringe where she was appearing as tragic singer Lena Zavaroni in the new musical Lena. There was more singing than usual from the Dame (Elton, eat your heart out) and a gorgeous, 1990s pop-inspired, feel-good finish. I’ll say no more.
Production values seem notched up this year. There’s been major investment in staging, sound and the most outrageously creative costumes. I lost count of the costume changes inflicted on poor Brad, who takes it all in his good-natured stride - “I’m 48, I shouldn’t be doing this!”. Let’s just say, he’s a knockout in Beanz. And this year's ‘autothermal, climatological weather machine, patent pending’ (I hope I've got that right) is a guaranteed laughter generator.
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. The ‘Drone of Love’ was far too good a gag to waste on a single season and kids’ favourite the ‘ghost bench’ has become the ‘zombie bench’. The joke cart is also reborn as ‘The Trolley of (four-legged) Fun’ with 26 consecutive gags to pull out. If I give away that it’s about dogs this year and you know how it works, you’ll understand why the Dame’s line ‘Was it a good zoo?’ brought the house down. Rita the Wonderdog adds a whole new level of chaos (Barbara Woodhouse will turn in her grave) and keeps the Dame on her toes.
The script pokes fun at neighbouring towns Telford and Market Drayton and even risked a snipey jibe at Shrewsbury School. But Evolution pantos are not soapboxes and a dig at private education - and the odd Boris swipe (a safe target) - was about as political as things got. Jack and The Beanstalk is a top drawer, no expense spared recipe of sparkling costumes, outrageous horseplay and silliness for silliness’ sake. Writer Paul Hendy only cares whether we’re laughing.
Shrewsbury's Number One Dame - Brad Fitt. Dames don't get any better than this!
As Brad Fitt always says, after 13 years of Evolution panto in Shrewsbury, there's a magical kind of shorthand between cast and audience; it's a bond of trust that relies on the brilliance of the script and our confidence in Brad and team to deliver it. We know they won't let us down, so we give them the benefit of the doubt from the get-go, even when things don't go to plan (errors, forced and unforced, make us chuckle all the more).
Everyone always goes ‘all-in’ at the Shrewsbury panto. There are no weak links. Writer/producer Paul Hendy and the Evolution team know their onions after 18 years delivering panto across the UK (13 at Theatre Severn).
Little wonder audiences hold the Evolution pantos close to their hearts in Shrewsbury and return every year. We're not just there to watch it. There's far more passion in it than that. Thanks to the skill and professionalism of everyone involved, we're truly part of it.
For a few hours once a year, panto brings us all together, young and old, and releases us from our complicated, modern lives in the simple act of laughing at something silly. In those moments, I have no doubt that we are the best versions of ourselves. As Backinanger shows us - redemption is possible!
Jack and the Beanstalk at Theatre Severn is already breaking all records, with 87% of tickets already sold. But with shows continuing to January 7th, 2024, there's still a good chance you'll get to see it if you're quick. With matinees and evening performances, relaxed, signed and stagetext shows too and tickets from £17-£29, book now via Theatre Severn box office Or contact (01743) 281281.