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Review: Jack and the Beanstalk at Liverpool Empire ****

Jack and the Beanstalk may be the final panto to open its doors ahead of Christmas, but while it’s last, it’s certainly not least.

Liverpool’s biggest and most lavish seasonal show delivers a giant dose of entertainment where the good win the day and the bad head for a deserved fall.

It’s loud, colourful, and occasionally chaotic – albeit a controlled chaos – as Jack (Alex James-Hatton) and his gang climb the magic beanstalk to battle the CGI-ant and save Princess Apricot (Clair Gleave) from the hungry ogre’s clutches.

Bob Tomson, Bill Kenwright’s director of choice in many national touring productions, takes on panto directorial duties this season and keeps the tall tale moving along so there’s no time for younger audience members to become restless.

Previous starry names treading the Lime Street boards at Christmas have included the late Cilla Black, the delightful Henry Winkler, local lads Les Dennis and Ray Quinn and, one surreal festive season, Pamela Anderson.

Audiences may remember the Baywatch babe’s somewhat stilted stage entrances, descending from the gods while sitting on a hoop and wearing, well, not that much.

Dame Trot, Simple Simon and Jack in Jack and the Beanstalk. Top: Shirley Ballas is Mother Nature

This year brings twirly Shirley Ballas, hot foot from judging the Strictly final and making her panto debut on home turf. And hallelujah, it appears Wallasey-raised Ballas is an absolute natural. Oh yes she is.

Her Mother Nature is no incidental star role – she’s integral to the plot, on stage for long periods of time, and has a substantial number lines which the former Queen of Latin delivers with clarity and confidence.

In addition, we don’t just get a little sashay here and cha-cha there in a nod to her Strictly status, but instead Ballas launches gamely in to full-blown dance routines and plays her part in comedy sequences which include a crowd-pleasing 12 Days of Christmas.

Read an interview with Shirley Ballas

Her partner-in-crime through much of this is entertainer John Evans, returning to festive duties at the Empire, this time as Simple Simon, brother of Jack and son of Dame Trot (Ian Stuart Robertson), and acting as the production's comedy fulcrum.

Meanwhile with the giant realised only in a 3D sequence in the second half, flesh-and-blood baddie duties fall to Daniel Taylor’s eminently boo-able childcatcher-like Fleshcreep who snarls and sneers with relish as he oils his way around the floor.

Daniel Taylor as Fleshcreep

There’s a rather perfunctory – and passing – romance between the princess and pauper Jack which sets up the real action in the sky, while the script’s preponderance of bottom (and assorted rude bits) jokes gets a bit tedious at times.

But elsewhere there are silly tongue-twisters, slick song-and-dance numbers, a clever musical segment courtesy of Evans, and an appearance for this season's only pantomime cow.

Moo-moo, for it is she, enjoys a starring role in a memorable routine featuring a farmyard of dancing sheep, goats and pigs, played by, among others, the Liverpool Empire Babes, young performers chosen through open auditions.

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