Playhouse, Oxford
Opened 6 December, 2003

For some time now, the highlight of my pre-Christmas reviewing season has been to visit the Oxford Playhouse. Its seasonal show is the epitome of straightforward pantomime. Agreeably present are all the generic traits such as the cross-dressing, the ghost gag, the local allusions and the audience singalong; thankfully absent are any celebrity names, so that the creative team can concentrate on the show itself rather than just stringing together cues for such people to show whatever it is they're allegedly famous for.

This year's Jack And The Beanstalk is an example of the Playhouse's straight-bat approach. Russell Dixon is getting quite assured as a dame by now – not a huge, cartooning performance, just exaggerated and comic-grotesque enough – but his bass baritone doesn't really suit musical numbers like "Shout" and "You're My World". Clive Hayward enjoys the villainous minion role as Malice. As Jack, Lizzie Deane is an affable elder-brother kind of character rather than just an obvious girl in breeches, although she and the others get to do the requisite amount of thigh-slapping. And if Jack is an elder brother, Daniel Redmond's Simple Simon is one of the kids, without patronising or lumbering around implausibly.

And yet it feels a little thinner than the Oxford fare I'm used to. The absence of a main sponsor for the show may have led to the cutting of a few budgetary corners (although the suddenly inflating beanstalk is wonderfully impressive): there's simply less "ooh" and "ahh" than I remember. Paul Knight has been writing Playhouse pantos for several years, and normally strikes an astute musical balance between pop classics and recent biggies. On this occasion, though, he's either recycling a very old cue-sheet or mistakenly going far too retro even for many of the parents: apart from Giant Blunderbore's number "Feed Me" (appropriated from Little Shop Of Horrors), virtually every song hails from the mid-1960s, including "Downtown", "Delilah" and even "Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds". And, although there are some nice self-referential gags (the mysterious figure who buys Jack's cow for a handful of beans enters crying, "New lamps for— Oh, sorry, wrong story"), there are also passages of misfires or neglect just long enough for the kids to get restive.

I remain a fan, but on this occasion it's a matter of loyalty as much as outright merit.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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