I might as well head over to the Hackney Empire,” says the infuriated villain, Fleshcreep, at the Lyric Hammersmith, referring to the unofficial seasonal rivalry between the two London theatres. On the evidence of this slick and zesty production of Jack and the Beanstalk, W6 has stolen an early march on E8.
Panto is the fairy godmother of the theatre scene, descending each winter to sprinkle magic dust across the stages and, given it’s a reliable bet for full houses, the accounts departments too. This year, a beleaguered industry needs it more than ever. Happily for the Lyric, Nicholai La Barrie’s production is a triumph, filtering Jack’s rags-to-riches story through a street carnival-meets-acid house aesthetic, all set to a sound-clash soundtrack (Titanic, Whitney Houston and rap).
There’s a stand-out star turn from Emmanuel Akwafo’s Dame Trott, who first appears dressed as a milkshake and combines smelling-salts fragility with an X-rated leer; she repeatedly steals the limelight from her thoroughly neglected son Simon, the kinetic Finlay McGuigan (who spends most of the production fruitlessly trying to stage a magic show).
Elsewhere, in a show that never lets up on the energy or gags, there’s a sweet (and quietly sapphic) relationship between Maddison Bulleyment’s tender-hearted Jill and her best friend Jack (a charismatic Leah St Luce); the latter wants to bring about equality and justice for all, but is stymied by her appetite not merely for quick monetary fixes – magic beans, golden-egg-laying geese – but also Greggs sausage rolls. One excellent set-piece involves the milking of poor Daisy, and another features a monstrous giant in the sky who terrorises the good folk of Hammersmith with tax demands that no one can meet, before sending down an extendable claw to steal one of the Trott family’s sheep.
But beyond the fleeting appearance of a lettuce, that’s about it for the politics. Instead, this panto follows a less-is-more approach to social commentary. The form is by definition transgressive, yet with gender-bending dames and villains now a gesture of inclusion as much as disruption, it can these days seem a more warm and fuzzy affair. Even Jodie Jacobs’s jolly-hockey-sticks Fleshcreep knows he can never properly convince as a villain, particularly when his assistant brings him a child’s plastic car as a getaway vehicle.
The ticker tape and fake snow are easy ways into audience hearts, yet here they’re both fully-earned parts of a joyous whole. There’s a cost-of-living crisis out there, but you’d never know it at the Lyric panto – and that’s precisely why it’s worth a trip.
Until Jan 7 2023. Tickets: 020 8741 6850; lyric.co.uk