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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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

“Like being in a giant wallet” – Chris Gascoyne gets into costume for the Jack and the Beanstalk Panto

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With this year’s Hippodrome panto, Jack and the Beanstalk now just a month away, the cast are beginning to get to grips with their scripts and prepare for their parts in the show. Last week, I caught up with Coronation Street’s Chris Gascoyne – who plays the giant’s accomplice, Fleshcreep – to find out more about the show.

So how are things going with the panto so far?

Well, we haven’t started rehearsals yet. We start rehearsing in London in about two weeks’ time, and then we come to Birmingham. Normally rehearsals for a panto are only a week. It’s crazy really. When you see the size of it, all the costumes and the routines, you wonder how they’ve managed to do all that in a week, but it’s just because you have to, really.

Our director, Michael Harrison, is working on two pantos at once – I think the other one is in Southampton. We’re all rehearsing in the same building in London, so he’s running from one room to the other. I think it might be the same show, so maybe I’ll have a look next door and see how the other bloke’s doing it, once we start! [Michael] has written the script for this one as well, and it’s one of the best panto scripts I’ve ever read.

Tell me a bit about your character, because it’s not one that’s in the original story, is it?

The character that I play is called Fleshcreep, and he’s the giant’s “second-in-command”, so apart from the giant, he’s the baddie of the show. The giant himself will be mainly in 3D. About six years ago I did a pantomime in Cardiff and they used 3D in that and it was incredible! But apparently this is new technology and it’s supposed to be even more amazing. Maybe one day it’ll be so good that they won’t need actors any more!

So is it Fleshcreep who’s really in charge, or is the giant still the big boss?

No, the giant’s definitely in charge of me! Fleshcreep is his minion.

Do you know what the giant will look like?

I haven’t seen him yet. I won’t get to see the giant until the technical rehearsal.

So you’ll just have to use your imagination in the meantime, then?

Pretty much, yeah. I remember with the one that we did in Cardiff, I played Abanazar and I had to talk to the genie, but because it was in 3D, I couldn’t even see it on stage. So while everyone else had got their got their glasses on, I had to look at a certain point in the auditorium and talk to him. All I had to go on was a recorded voice, and if I was a second too early or a second too late with my lines, it just carried on anyway, so the timing was the most difficult part. Also if I forgot my lines, he’d just carry on speaking as if I’d said them!

Your character on Coronation Street has a reputation for being a bit of a “bad boy” too. Do you think it’s more interesting playing characters with a mean streak?

Yes, I think so! But I don’t think Peter is really a baddie – he just makes mistakes and makes bad choices, just like anybody. He’s not a bad person, and even if he gets himself into situations where it looks pretty bad, he’s not someone who would intentionally hurt anyone.

Chris-Gascoyne-Birm (2)Have you done a lot of pantomimes before? How does this compare to others you’ve been involved with?

This is my fourth panto, and it’s bigger than any of the others I’ve done. I’ve been pretty lucky really: apart from the first one, all the other pantos I’ve been involved in have been with Qdos, which is the biggest pantomime company, and this is their biggest show. Everyone tells me that the Birmingham audiences are great and the cast is great and I know the script is good, and there’ll be all the 3D and special effects so I’m really looking forward to it! But really, I’ve got no idea what to expect!

You haven’t started rehearsing with the other cast members yet, but have you had chance to meet many of them?

No, not really. I met Duncan James this morning for the press photos. It was quite funny, because I came up to his dressing room head to toe in black leather, and he said, “Oh hi – are you playing the baddie, then?” and I said, “Well, I’d guess.” So I’d just met him and then the next thing I know I’m trying to strangle him in the foyer for the pictures!

Was this your first time seeing the costume today as well?

No I’d seen that before for some other photos we did earlier, but I’ll slightly modify it, I think.

What’s it like to wear it? It doesn’t sound especially comfortable!

It’s very warm! It’s all leather, and it’s a little bit like being inside a giant wallet.

Obviously Fleshcreep is a completely new character. Can we expect to see anything else new or surprising in this version of the Jack in the Beanstalk story?

Based on the script, I think that without it completely moving away from the story, there are going to be lots of really brilliant, interesting surprises. But I don’t know that much yet, so I’m as intrigued as you are to see how it all comes together.

What do you have lined up next for when you’ve finished with all of this?

I don’t know yet. Hopefully I’m going to go and do a couple of plays, though I can’t say what they are yet because they haven’t been 100% confirmed. I’ll probably do a bit of TV and just carry on and see what happens. I think all you can hope for as an actor is that luck will keep smiling on you and you’ll keep on working.

Has being involved with the panto made you start feeling festive yet?

Yeah – it always makes you feel Christmassy. I think the best thing about doing a panto is when you’re performing on Christmas Eve and all the kids are so excited! It’s great to be a part of that. It’s not really that far away now and all the lights are up so I’m looking forward to Christmas.

Jack and the Beanstalk will be showing at the Birmingham Hippodrome from Friday 19 December until Sunday 1st February. Click here to read my interview with star of the show, Duncan James, or for more information and to book, visit the Hippodrome’s website.

Jack and the Beanstalk: Duncan James Stars in This Year’s Hippodrome Panto

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It’s the show you’ve all bean waiting for! As the festive season approaches, the Birmingham Hippodrome theatre will once again play host to the country’s biggest pantomime, this time returning to the classic story of Jack and the Beanstalk.

This year’s panto extravaganza will star Duncan James from the recently reunited Blue, along with Coronation Street’s Chris Gascoyne and TV and singing sensation Jane McDonald – as well as a spectacular 3D giant, which will be brought to life by the very latest technology. They’ll be joined by comedy masters Gary Wilmot, Paul Zerdin and Matt Slack, making a return to similar roles after the huge success of last year’s show, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, with Wilmot once again donning a frock as the dame.

To find out more about the show, I met up with leading man Duncan James, who will be playing loveable lad Jack. Though best known for his pop career, James has done his fair share of acting over the years, including in stage plays like Chicago. His vocal talents are also sure to come in handy for the show’s musical numbers. Here’s what he had to say about the panto…

 

So, how’s everything going so far? Are you getting on well with the script?

Honestly – I haven’t even looked at it yet! I’ve only just got it through this week, and I’ve been in Belgium doing a show called Night of the Proms, so I’ve been busy rehearsing that. The last few weeks have been crazy: last week was the big reunion for Blue, of course. But I’m going on holiday next week and I’ve got a 14-hour flight ahead of me, so I’m going to take the script with me and read it over then.

How are things going with the reunion? It must be pretty hectic now the band’s back together, what with recording and your TV show coming up.

Yeah, we’ve got a new album coming out next year, and our TV show will be starting in January on ITV 2. Blue are then going on the road touring in March and April, and the panto will be showing right up until February, so I’ll be going straight into touring afterwards. It’s a really busy time for me! This holiday I’ve got coming up next week is the only time I’ve got off until May, so I’m definitely going to make sure I make the most of it!

Tell me a little bit about your character in the panto. Is it going to be a pretty traditional interpretation?

Yeah, I think Jack is always going to be a goodie-goodie. The baddies are always more fun to play – you can really get your teeth into those roles. I tend to get cast more as good guys, but I’d love to play a baddie one day. Maybe I should speak to Qdos!

I guess you could always do something a bit crazy with the character to make him more interesting.

I’m gonna play him a little bit cheeky, but I think because there are a lot of kids, in the end,  you’ve got to keep him quite nice. I’ll be playing him as a sort of big, slightly naughty kid.

You had the chance to dress up in your costume for photos this morning. What was it like wearing the outfit?

It’s very camp. Especially the big knee-high boots!

Any tights involved?

No, no tights. They’re more like – I don’t know what you’d call them – like sort of Aladdin-y pants.

Oh – it’s not super camp then!

Ha, no, they’re not skin-tight – thank God!

Have you had chance to meet any of the other cast members yet, besides Chris?

No, I just met Chris today, and he’s lovely. Obviously I know Jane from doing Loose Women, but I haven’t really met anyone else, so it’ll be quite exciting to finally meet the others!

In terms of the story, can we expect any surprises or will it be a fairly straightforward version of the fairy tale we all know and love?

I’m not entirely sure yet, but I do know that we’re having a 3D giant. So there’ll be a nice moment for the audience to put on their 3D glasses and see the giant come to life. I think that’ll be really cool!

Has getting ready for the panto got you feeling Christmassy, or have you managed to resist the festive pull so far?

Do you know, today was actually the first time I felt properly Christmassy. There’s the big Christmas tree in the foyer of the theatre and there was a moment when I suddenly realised, “Oh my God! It’s coming!” So I’m excited now!

 

Check back soon to read my interview with Chris Gascoyne, who’ll be taking on the part of the giant’s wicked assistant, Fleshcreep. For more information on the panto and to book tickets, visit the Birmingham Hippodrome website.