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South East
posted/updated: 22 Feb 2014 -
Jack and the Beanstalk
by Alan P Frayn. Directed by Peter Bailey.
society/company: Gillingham Dramatic Society (directory)
performance date: 21 Feb 2014
venue: The Brook Theatre, 5 The Brook, Chatham, Kent ME4 4SE
reviewer/s: Susan Elkin (Sardines review)

Tasteful isn’t a word which you usually associate with pantomime but it’s the best adjective I can think of to encapsulate the difference between this gentle but strong, funny, off-season show, written by Alan P Frayn and the dozens of tiresomely raucous, brash, professional pantomimes I see and review every December. Gillingham Dramatic Society and Peter Bailey, director of this Jack, allow us, for example, to hear most characters speaking clear, more or less received pronunciation instead of the usual dumbed down inane gabble - and that’s a delightfully refreshing change. He also ensures that we get some very attractive balletic scenes and see some fine acting as opposed to hamming it up in a romp. 

The show includes an outstanding performance from the highly talented Cleopatra Hemans-Davis as Simon. She captures an appealing insouciance, has an admirable sense of comic timing and oodles of that hard-to-define but easily recognised quality – stage presence. Her interpretation is about as far from the standard coarse ‘Wanna be in my gang?’ style as it could be and I liked it very much indeed. 

Grant Baker is an enjoyably effective Dame with several increasingly outrageous costumes as the role requires. And we get a nice duo from Jeni Brownsill and Lee Round as a pair of gor-blimey con men trying to cheat everyone. Both sing, dance and act with professional panache.

 There is some very pleasing dancing in this production and it’s good to see such a wide range of participants from teenagers – some of whom are accomplished dancers and singers – down to two tiny children who have to be led on and provide plenty of aah-factor, especially when they are dressed as diminutive calves belonging to Buttermilk the Cow. I also admire the inclusivity. Some of these dancers do not conform to the body shape usually required in professional dance troops and yet here they are doing a grand job. Bravo. 

Another pleasure is the fine five piece band led by musical director Peter Bailey who also coaxes some nice acapella singing from the ensemble at the beginning. I wonder though, why there aren’t more songs, especially in the first half. There are many whole scenes which rely totally on dialogue and younger members of the audience might be less restive with more variety. And I was sad to see the ghost gag – my favourite set piece in any pantomime – almost thrown away. There is no bench, the rat isn’t remotely scary, the song is unaccompanied so it’s weak and we don’t get any chanted refrain. 

But these are minor gripes about what is, for the most part, a sparky couple of hours of family entertainment.

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