JOYCE MCMILLAN on JACK AND THE BEANSTALK at the Byre Theatre, St. Andrews, for The Scotsman 1.12.14.
4 stars ****
OH YES – OH NO – oh yes it is! It’s the beautiful Byre Theatre in St. Andrews, open again after almost two years of insolvency and darkness; and if the party atmosphere surrounding this year’s pantomime is any guide, then the Byre’s new era as a university-owned theatre – run by St. Andrews University’s music director, Michael Downes – could be a lively one, full of exciting collisions between community companies, and professional theatre and music makers.
It’s not that this year’s panto, written and drected by Gordon Barr of Glasgow’s Bard In The Botanics company, is the finest or most eloquent you will ever see; on the contrary, it’s rude, rough-and-ready, and a good 20 minutes too long, with a sag in the middle that has nothing to do with the Dame’s middle-aged spread. What makes it irresistible, though, is a heady mixture of three sparkling ingredients. In the first place, it’s absolutely drenched in true panto spirit, with most of the key panto traditions present and correct, from the delightful panto cow, Maggie, to the final song-sheet; and while the “Jack” team of local youth theatre members acted up a storm on stage – as assorted elves and fairy-tale characters – I was particularly impressed by the efforts of the alternating “Jill” team, up in the first-night audience, who had clearly been on an intensive course in world-class panto audience participation.
Then, there is Barr’s delightful willingness to tell the traditional story of poor boy Jack and his magical beanstalk, while entwining it with some hilarious original ideas. I liked the idea that Jack, his Mum, and his useless brother are living in a byre with Maggie when the baron tries to evict them (Save The Byre, geddit?), and couldn’t resist the 1970’s back-story, told in a flashback, of Dame Nellie and the Baron’s youthful glam-rock romance.
And finally, there’s the gorgeous look of the theatre itself, all its foyer areas decked out like a Victorian family Christmas party in fairylights, tinsel, trees, fireplaces with stockings, and big leather armchairs. The air fairly glows with goodwill and good cheer, as this most beautiful of Scotland’s theatres begins to find its audience again; and Gordon Barr’s cast, led by Robert Elkin as Jack, Alan Steele as Dame Nellie, and Tom Duncan as the Baron, give this old story of evil conquered by love their very best, in an evening of panto that’s far from perfect, but gloriously welcome and welcoming, all the same.