A man lies flat on his back in the middle of the performance space, a box on his head. A woodsman greets us as we enter the theatre. He’s handing out beans to children as they file past on their way to find a seat. It’s an engaging start to what turns out to be a gripping and hilarious rendition of the familiar tale of Jack and the Beanstalk.
Once we’re all settled, the performers begin. Early movement is slow and deliberate, almost dance-like, precisely choreographed to add meaning to the spoken words. Two musicians at the side of the stage are equipped with flute, violin, drum and saxophone. Their delicate playing builds suspense as the action unfolds, and the mood is almost meditative in these opening scenes.
In a bleak beginning, Milky White, the cow, runs out of milk during a drought and so the troubles start for Jack, a farmer, and his mother.
Dreamy Jack is convinced he’s found a solution to their financial woes when he’s conned into a deal by a mysterious masked villager. How can he resist? He puts his trust in a “cow-back guarantee”, but his mum doesn’t share his enthusiasm. When she prises his fingers open to reveal not money but the worthless, supposedly magic beans, she’s incensed. “No dreams here!” she screams, in a very cleverly-staged slow-motion pursuit which ramps up the energy and gains a lot of laughs.
Despite her doubts, the beans do indeed grow, reaching higher and higher into a towering, box-filled sky. Acrobatic Jack scales the beanstalk to enter the ogre’s den, his impressive physical skills prompting a comment from a child behind me, full of wonder: “How does he do that?”
At this point the audience is invited into the action. Little voices call out hesitant responses to questions from Jack’s mother, but soon gain confidence, and when a small group of volunteers is needed on stage, a sea of hands shoot up. “Don’t be afraid,” is the motto of this poetic panto. From this point in the show there are lots of chances to get involved as Jack and his helpers face their fears and step up to the challenge of outsmarting the ogre who lives at the top of the beanstalk.
“Does anyone have the courage to be eaten alive?” A few hands quickly drop but many more go up. Brave Edward, who has no previous experience of ogres, ventures into the unknown. He is assured (in a slightly sinister fashion) that “something interesting will happen”. As he waves goodbye to his family and enters the darkness (to say any more about this would be to give away the secrets of this beautifully designed on-stage world), the tap, tap, tapping of tiny bones reminds us of the ogre’s favourite meal.
Fee-fi-fo-fum … this is thrilling, scary fun!
There’s puppetry, some silliness and lots left to the imagination. What could be happening up there, high in the clouds? Awful possibilities are magnified by the power of the imagination – it’s a delicate dance between fear and the reassurance that everything will turn out fine. There are plenty of opportunities for participation by the more adventurous smaller members of the audience, so sit down the front if that sounds appealing.
All the familiar elements of the original story unfold. Jack eats the ogre’s food, steals his money then ascends for a third time on a mission to seize the ultimate prize – the goose that lays the golden eggs. The dramatic climax may be overwhelming for some but after his threatening intrusion into Jack’s world the ogre is sent packing and order is restored.
This production by Italian director Chiara Guidi and her Australian creative team is superb. Yes, it’s a teensy bit frightening at times, but fabulous for children ages 7+ and their families.
Jack and the Beanstalk is being presented at the Odeon Theatre until March 8.
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