Have You Bean to Brum? Jack and the Beanstalk: The Birmingham Hippodrome Panto 2014

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Another year, another hilarious Hippodrome panto – it’s hard to believe that Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was so long ago, but here we are again.

DSCF3552This Christmas, Jack and the Beanstalk sees its murderous giant brought to life in stunning 3D by Whizzbang 3D Productions before a squealing audience. On press night at least, there were also a few squeals of a rather different sort directed at the show’s leading man, Blue’s Duncan James. Assisting the wicked giant is the slimy, treacherous Fleshcreep, played by Coronation Street‘s Chris Gascoyne, looking excellent in a sweeping black coat, top hat, shades and thick eyeliner. Meanwhile, helping out our hero on the good team are Jane McDonald’s glamorous Enchantress and returning comedy trio Gary Wilmot, Paul Zerdin and Matt Slack, as Jack’s mum, Dame Trot, and his two bonkers brothers, Simple Simon and Silly Billy.

As ever, the show is an absolute visual feast – and not just because it features enough beans to feed a family for weeks and a comedy routine centred on the names of different chocolate bars. Stunning sets, beautiful backdrops and gorgeous, glittering lights are all in abundance, while the fabulous array of costumes includes the Enchantress’s dazzling dress, Fleshcreep’s gothic get-up and a whole host of fluffy farm animals who gallop, trot and pad across the stage for a charming dance sequence with the Dame. As well as the giant, the special effects also encompass a beanstalk so tall it looks as though it might topple (don’t worry – no audience members were harmed in the staging of this performance, as far as we know), and an amazing helicopter and animatronic giant that operate with a similar mechanism to last year’s Black Country dragon.

DSCF3526Throughout the show, there’s a brilliant chemistry between Jane McDonald’s and Chris Gascoyne’s constantly clashing helper characters, and Wilmot, Zerdin and Slack are back on form, bouncing off each other and providing the driving energy behind this production. There are some great set pieces in Act I, including the aforementioned chocolate bars skit, some well-timed slapstick from Silly Billy, and a couple of nice moments with Simple Simon and his cheeky puppet, Sam. However, it’s in the second half that the comedy really picks up, with a hysterical 12 Days of Christmas routine which last night saw one viewer almost knocked out by flying loo rolls. Up in the giant’s castle, Dame Trot and her boys keep up their spirits with a rendition of “All About That Bass”, and the end of the show features some audience participation when Paul Zerdin invites some of the little ones up onto the stage for a sing-song – and, of course, some human ventriloquism.

But the gags aren’t the only thing guaranteed to have you leaving the theatre with a smile on your face: brilliantly choreographed, the big dance numbers to the classic “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and Pharrell’s irresistible “Happy” will have you grinning and humming along whether or not you mean to.

Once again, Michael Harrison and Qdos bring you panto at its finest. Oh yes they do.

Jack and the Beanstalk is showing at the Birmingham Hippodrome until Sunday 1st February, with a special relaxed performance on Thursday 29th January. For more information and to book tickets, visit the Hippodrome website, and don’t forget to watch out for a Radio 2 broadcast about Britain’s biggest pantomime on Christmas Day.

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Clever Silliness – An Interview with Panto Star Matt Slack at the Jack and the Beanstalk Rehearsals

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The opening night of the Birmingham Hippodrome panto draws near, and the stars are now kitted out with all their colourful costumes. With just one more sleep to go, Jack and the Beanstalk is looking amazing, a truly dazzling set having taken over the theatre’s main stage.

Earlier in the rehearsal process, I had chance to speak to actor and comedian Matt Slack, who is returning to the Hippodrome after taking up the role of Oddjob in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs last year. This year, he’ll playing Jack’s daft brother, Silly Billy, alongside his returning co-stars, Paul Zerdin (Simple Simon) and Gary Wilmot (Dame Trot).

You’re returning to the Birmingham Hippodrome pantomime for the second year running. How is this year’s panto comparing to 2013’s?

I’m really thrilled to be back. It’s going to be difficult to follow last year’s because it was such a huge success. The response from the Birmingham audience was just incredible! It is the best in the country, and I’ve done a lot of these now. We set the bar really high so we’ve got a lot to live up to, but already in the rehearsals there’s a fantastic vibe and we can tell it’s going to be funny and spectacular!

DSCF3467It’s great to be back with Paul and Gary. Duncan James [Jack] and Jane McDonald [The Enchantress] are both brilliant to work with too. Jane’s never done it before but she’s a natural.

Normally it feels a bit daunting at the start, but in this case, I don’t have a bad word to say about anything. I’m going to be doing some new material – obviously you don’t want to repeat anything. But hopefully it will be all the same quality as last year.

Has it been fun reuniting with your co-stars from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs?

Yeah! Me and Paul are good mates anyway. I think it makes it more exciting to have all three of us together again, and it’s helped the rehearsals to move along a bit more quickly because we’ve already broken the ice and we know each other – there’s none of that “first day at school” kind of awkwardness.

Tell me about your character. Is it quite similar to last year’s?

Yeah, it’s been a funny old year for me, actually – I’ve played an array of characters on stage and TV, but I’ve ended up in a very similar role to the one I was in at the start of the year. Silly Billy is a lot like Oddjob: it’s basically just me being me – a bit stupid, a bit silly, but sort of clever at the same time. It’s a clever silliness. He’s a big, bold, funny character. I just hope the kids enjoy the performance as much as the adults. We want to get every generation there laughing. There’s nothing better than when someone comes up to you and says, “You made me laugh, and my kids, and my mum.”

Have you had chance to have a look at your full costume yet?

I’ve just tried it on. It’s brilliant! Something happens when you put the costume on – it just instantly puts you into “panto mode”. It’s almost the same as my costume last year except for the colours, which is good because it means I’m already comfortable working in it. All of the costumes are specially made, this being the biggest panto in the country. It’s quite imDSCF3517portant that they’re comfortable because the performances can be very physical, and because of the number of shows we do.

Have the rehearsals got you feeling festive and ready for Christmas?

Well, this panto starts so late that it will be very close to Christmas when we start performing. It doesn’t actually open till the 19th December. It can sometimes be hard to be in the Christmas spirit when you’re working so hard, but ultimately panto is Christmas for me, so yes, I am starting to feel festive.

Jack and the Beanstalk opens at the Birmingham Hippodrome tomorrow evening. To find out more and to book tickets, visit the Birmingham Hippodrome website

Oh no they didn’t! Jane McDonald and the Hippodrome Panto Stars Begin Rehearsals in London

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It’s December, and with panto season well underway, rehearsals for the UK’s biggest pantomime have just begun, with the stars of this year’s show, Jack and the Beanstalk, getting into character in London’s Jerwood Space.

Yesterday, members of the press were invited to sit in on some of the first read- and dance-throughs. Although we caught the cast early on in their rehearsal process, from the short scenes we saw, it was clear that both the comedy and choreography were already taking shape.

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First up, we got a glimpse of the opening dance number, with the chorus getting jamming along to Pharell’s ‘Happy’. Next, Jane McDonald (The Cruise, Loose Women, Star Treatment) and Chris Gascoyne (Coronation Street, New Street Law, Soldier Soldier) took to the floor to face off in their respective roles as The Enchantress and the Giant’s assistant, Fleshcreep. Returning for his second Hippodrome panto running, ventriloquist Paul Zerdin (who plays Simple Simon) and his puppet, Sam, then rehearsed a scene involving a complicated gag centred around the names of three neighbours. Zerdin was later joined by returning comedy co-stars Gary Wilmot (Dame Trot) and Matt Slack (Silly Billy) as well as Blue’s Duncan James (Jack), who discussed the hard times the family had fallen upon, and made a good early attempt at some very complicated lines! Finally, a second dance sequence ended with a number from TV songster Jane McDonald.

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After lunch, I had chance to interview some of the stars about their roles in the show. Here’s what Jane McDonald had to say about The Enchantress.

Tell me a bit about your character in the panto.

My character is The Enchantress and she is the magic spirit of all that is good. I come in and fix everybody’s lives and make sure that nobody gets hurt and that the love is shared all around. So it’s the perfect role for me, really!

You’ve not long started, but how are the rehearsals going so far?

No, we’ve only been doing it for two days, but I have never laughed so much! The cast are the funniest people I have ever met in my life! I’m really looking forward to it now. I’ve never done panto before – this is my first time – and a lot of people have said it’s hard work, but to be quite honest, I go out and do my own shows for two and a half hours every night, so to actually work with a cast is a lifesaver for me! I’m also looking forward to being in the same place every day and sleeping in the same bed every night. That’ll be complete luxury!

DSCF3412Sounds like the tour has left you feeling worn out!

You could say that, yeah! I only finished on Sunday night and then it was straight into the first rehearsal on Monday, so I’m at the stage where I’m not sure how I’m even managing to talk to you right now! But it has been fabulous fun, and you just keep going in this business.

This is your first pantomime, but it won’t be your first stage musical, so how does it compare to other things that you’ve worked on in the past?

I did Romeo and Juliet in the West End, which was very dark, so this is obviously much lighter! It’s very camp and very funny. The script is hilarious. Even my opening line is about my knickers coming off! When I first read it, I thought, “Blimey, that’s a bit much!” But it is funny. It’s all typical English humour, which we don’t see a lot of, nowadays.

I think I caught sight of your magic wand earlier on. Have you had chance to try your costume on and see how everything looks yet?

How heavy is that wand?

I think it’s about half the size of me!

Ha, it is, actually! It’s massive, isn’t it? And it lights up and does everything. I think you can probably see it from space! It is very heavy, so I’m going to have to get used to handling it. It’s phenomenal though. It’s got its own credit, that wand.

How about the dress? Have you had a look at that?

Yeah, it’s lovely. Lots of Lycra! So that’ll give me a bit of breathing space – built-in underwear, that’s me. It’s actually very easy to wear.

And sparkly, I bet.

Yeah, of course it is!

That doesn’t light up as well, does it?

No – not yet! That’s an idea, though!

DSCF3398[1]You’ve previously worked with Duncan on Loose Women. How has it been reuniting with him in a different context?

Yeah, we’ve done a couple of shows together. It’s great, actually. You get to know people a lot better when you’re doing something like this, because we’re going to be working together for eight weeks. He’s a cracking singer, you know. When he started up singing in the rehearsals, I was like, “Blimey!” He’s got a really strong voice, and he’s a great actor as well, so I think it’s good for him to be doing this in his own right.  I think a lot of people will be impressed. I was certainly wowed when I saw him, even though I’d seen him in the West End before so I already knew he could do it. He’s hilarious, too – not at all like his character. He’s very very funny and very dry.

Have you had chance to have a look at the theatre yet or will it all be new to you when you arrive there?

I went over to have a look and to do the press day before, and it’s absolutely stunning! The Birmingham Hippodrome is like the place to perform. Apparently everybody’s coming to this place and everyone comes to watch the Birmingham panto, so I’m hoping they’ll all come and see this one – otherwise it’s not going to reflect very well on me! I must admit I’d go and see a show there. It’s a very comfortable theatre. It has really nice seats and fantastic views. I’m really looking forward to performing there.

What about Birmingham more generally. Do you know the town much?

You’ve got everything there, haven’t you? Selfridges and all the shopping. I’m well excited!

So has starting the panto rehearsals put you in the Christmas spirit or have you resisted the festive pull so far?

I think I’ve avoided it a bit, just because I haven’t really had time to think about it. But all the adverts on telly are starting to get me now. I think once I’m in Birmingham that’s when I’ll start to feel really festive. I’ll have my partner there and my mum will come to visit, and my best friend. I think it’s gonna be lovely!

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Jack and the Beanstalk will be showing at the Birmingham Hippodrome from Friday 19th December until Sunday 1st February. Tickets are available from the Birmingham Hippodrome website. Keep an eye on this blog for my interviews with panto co-stars Matt Slack and Gary Wilmot