Take a bow Princess Jill, Jack, Spirit of the Beans, Jake, Mrs Blunderbore, Dame Trot, Doreen the Lazy Cow and ensemble. Pictures Paul Coltas.

Jack and the Beanstalk

Birmingham Hippodrome


With the festive season in full swing this is a real Christmas cracker for all the family to enjoy, it’s fun, daft, spectacular and packed with wall to wall – and ceiling - laughs.

Laughs means Matt Slack and if he didn’t exist the Hippodrome would have to turn to AI to try to invent him. This is his tenth year as the panto funmeister and it is hard to imagine a panto without him any more.

He has become Brum’s Mr Panto and you can feel the buzz of anticipation whenever he appears. He is blessed with that priceless ability that the late, great Tommy Cooper had of generating laughs just by walking on stage – and even the best AI will never manage that!

He appeals to all ages, from ancient grans to children, my grandsons, aged 12 and eight adore him, and he has become one of Birmingham’s Christmas institutions. He is naughty, and gets away with it with his cheeky charm, he’s delightfully daft, inventive, witty - and pretty badly bruised after the battering he gets in a variation of if I were not upon the stage.

His tale of lost love using snatches of hit records had the entire audience in stitches as did his A-Z impressions of celebrities.

jake and jack

Matt Slack as Jake with Alexandra O'Reilly as Jack

Here he plays Jake Trot, Jack’s older brother who doesn’t get the girl yet again, as we are constantly reminded. Slack is not just the star he is the best mate of everyone in the audience, knows just what they want and supplies it, turning everything into a laugh, cheering everyone up.

Mind you there is danger in the role as he found with the traditional panto scene of bring a few children on stage for a chat at the end, the time filler while everyone gets changed for the finale, they are there for a song, a round of applause and off with a pressie except on Press night he found he had one rather talkative and less than complimentary six year old to deal with. Methinks the vetting process might be in for a rethink . . .

Meanwhile back at the panto, Jack is Brummie Alexandra O’Reilly, a former Birmingham Ormiston Academy pupil, while the girl in this case is Billie-Kay as Princess Jill, which gives us a Jack and Jill joke in passing. The pair are the serious bit, the love story bit, and in this show the love story really is a bit. Not a lot of laughs in romance.

dame and doreen

Andrew Ryan as Dame Trot and Doreen Tipton as Doreen, the lazy cow.

When it comes to laughs there is nothing like a dame, and Andrew Ryan is a traditional dame through and through. This year it’s Dame Trot, and it’s his seventh year as a dame at the Hippodrome and 33rd time as a dame in his 37th panto. When not in a frock Ryan has a distinguished West End and theatre career. His dame is pure panto, never anything more than a comic character, a bloke in a frock, or, in his case, a collection of ever more outlandish ones.  

Another Hippodrome regular by now is Doreen Tipton, Queen of the Black Country and the only person to be diagnosed with lazy cow syndrome. She plays Doreen, the lazy Cow, which doesn’t involve her doing too much, whatever the script might say, although we do discover that Doreen has a quite superb singing voice  - when she can be arsed. Her variation on I dreamed a dream was a revelation.

Incidentally, Doreen’s alter ego is a talented painter and a superb, classically trained actress – just saying . . .

sam womack

Samantha Womack as Mrs Blunderbore

And every panto needs a baddy so step forward Samantha Womack as Mrs Blunderbore. She has form in the evil stakes after her stint as the White Witch in the recent tour of The Lion. The Witch and the Wardrobe, and a familiarity with the dark side as Morticia in The Addams Family.

Her voice has echo added in this production which perhaps needs to be tweaked down a little. Womack’s voice is always as clear as a bell, whether in fantasy roles or as Rachel in The Girl on the Train, every word can be heard clearly and at times the electronic distortion was a little too much. Not really a distraction and I suspect most of the audience didn’t care, but a few words were lost here and there.

If you have a baddy you need a goody, after all panto is all about good versus evil, so in her panto debut we have Alison Hammond, Kingstanding-born proud Brummie as The Spirit of the Beans bringing her own ray of glorious, larger than life sunshine to proceedings.

Panto needs a bit of spectacle and so we have three huge, foot-tapping giants in the opening few minutes, strangely never to be seen again, and then a huge, stage filling giant with a head the size of a small planet appearing from out of the rear of the vast Hippodrome stage and then looming out over the audience, eyes the size of searchlights beaming through the darkness.

Jack and Jill have a few seconds battle with him as he disappears but that is all we see of old Blunderbore, the story not really extending into the giant’s realm, he’s there and he’s gone, end of - this is a plot for laughs rather then panto-drama, and if laughter really was the best medicine, then trust me, this would cure most things.


Alison Hammond as The Spirit of the Beans

Some things have to be included though and when it comes to special effects Jack doesn’t usually have to play second fiddle to a vegetable but his eponymous beanstalk is quite literally the biggest star of this year’s panto, even earning its own round of applause.

It suddenly grows from the posh seats in the stalls, waves at the circle as it passes and is only stopped by the roof. It even gets climbed up by an enthusiastic Jack who then disappears into the loft where presumably the Hippodrome keep their old suitcases, discarded cricket bats and tennis rackets and dressing up clothes. Spectacular or what?

Behind it all is a hard working 10-strong ensemble with some classy dance routines (choreographer Ashley Nottingham) and rapid costume changes.

Music is supplied by an excellent seven piece orchestra under musical director Robert Willis while Ben Cracknell’s lighting and Mark Walters set provide a spectacular backdrop – LED computer controlled lights really have brought a new dimension to theatre.

Written by Harry Michaels and Matt Slack with additional material from Rob Madge and Doreen creator David Tristram, the panto is directed by Michael Harrison for Crossroads Pantomimes and the laughs will continue and the beanstalk will still be growing to 28-01-23.

Roger Clarke


Next year’s Hippodrome panto is Peter Pan, 21-12-24 to 02-02-25 and starring, who else, Matt Slack.

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