Here’s a show about a single mum struggling to make ends meet in a hard-pressed community where a higher power has closed the hospitals and libraries and has an aversion to all things green. It must be a cutting political drama? Oh no it’s not, it’s the latest Lyric pantomime. The embattled mum is Moreen Dripp, mother of Jack, and the unseen threat is the wicked Snot Giant, who must be vanquished. All that’s needed is a giant beanstalk, which is handy really, as, this being pantomime, magic beans are just a plot twist away.
In recent years the Lyric has turned out some fabulous pantomimes, cannily mixing the conventions of the genre with a mischievous, tongue-in-cheek meta-theatrical streak. Tom Wells, writing his first for the theatre, keeps up the tradition. There’s a dame (Howard Ward), a pantomime cow, a cape-swishing baddie (Fleshcreep, the giant’s henchman, played with enjoyable relish by Nigel Richards) and a host of much-loved staples: corny songs, slapstick routines and daft visual puns. But the characters also frequently break the fourth wall and comment on the absurdities of the plot. In a neat, contemporary twist, Wells spins the principal boy idea, making Jack an actual girl who just happens to be called Jack (Rochelle Rose), so giving the show a strong female protagonist (her boyfriend, to even things out, is called Jill).
Wells’s plays glow with warmth and quirky humour and that is much in evidence here. He writes particularly well for the Lyric’s secret weapon, the excellent Steven Webb (Buttons last year), who, as an impish, green-fingered eco-warrior called Sprout, is our effervescent guide to proceedings. And there’s some enjoyable musical nonsense in Dan Herd’s sprightly production, with the cast signalling the key change in an aspirational ballad and Jill (Joshua Tonks) spooling through a playlist to find his lovelorn solo.
Less successful, though, is the marrying of all the nonsense to the plot. It’s always a fine balancing act, but here the storyline feels particularly undernourished. Good ideas are introduced and then forgotten and key scenes – such as the escape from the giant’s lair – are raced through. In the battle between good and evil you need to feel something is at stake, however daft the circumstances: without this the show loses its drive and feels increasingly hollow. Lots of fun, then, but in the end there is a bit too much icing and not quite enough cake.