Jack and the Beanstalk, Norwich

CHARLES ROBERTS As the audience participation and final applause exuberantly illustrates, the best critics in the house – the youngsters – are giving the Theatre Royal panto roof-raising approval.

CHARLES ROBERTS

With a couple of performances already under its belt by the time I caught up with it yesterday, the 2002 panto was already nicely settled in, brisk, bright and entertaining.

And as the audience participation and final applause exuberantly illustrated, the best critics in the house – the youngsters, that is – were giving it roof-raising approval.

Word had already gone out that this was the best panto for years. With 31 consecutive Theatre Royal pantos under my particular belt, I wouldn't go as far as that. But its all-dancing, all-singing, all-pacy qualities certainly give it a high rating in the Royal's annals.

With the show's impressive collection of lively, painted backcloths, super costumes and first-rate lighting, plus clean-cut, swiftly moving choreography (devised by Johnny Worth), a visual feast is guaranteed.

Playing an equal role in melding everything together, and ensuring the zestful momentum which keeps the show aloft from start to finish, is the six-man band in the pit, guided by the ever-reliable Roger Davison.

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Director of the show, and co-writer with Rikki Jay, is the highly experienced Richard Gauntlett, who also appears as Dame Trott, a sparky, fizzy performance whose vast wardrobe is topped by a hilarious Mary Poppins doppelgänger… who even flies in by umbrella!

As director, he infuses lots of fresh ideas and visual gags, and makes music – from romantic to rock 'n' roll – a central part of a show in which the traditional and the modern come happily together.

Odd that he and Rikki Jay – the latter a master of pantomime comedy – have produced a script which is fairly light on laugh lines, jokes and word play – with quite a few of the “jokes” that they do include going past the audience with scarcely a nod.

As a performer, this time as the eponymous Jack, Mr Jay effortlessly pulls his audience into cheerful complicity and radiates a wicked bonhomie… even when he's calculatingly taking the mickey out of fellow performers for missing a cue or cocking up a good line.

The Prince of the tale, as created by Steven Houghton, is not high in the personality stakes. In irresistible contrast comes Brian Hibbard as Stinkwort, the classic baddie. He is a real character, radiating energy and loving his villainy. This is, in short, the best pantomime villain that I can recall in decades of theatre going.

We also have the most engaging Fairy, as realised by Kelly Taylor, who works her wings off, sings charmingly, has a light comic touch, and flies with an elan to make Peter Pan envious.

t Jack and the Beanstalk continues until Sunday January 19. Box office: 01603 630000

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