Preview: Jack and the Beanstalk

Sneaking heavy metal and One Direction into panto and winning the approval of Sir Ian McKellen, Harrogate’s pantomime writer Phil Lowe tells Andy Murray about the latest production of Jack And The Beanstalk

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For most of us, festive frivolity is just a once-a-year thing. For Phil Lowe, though, it’s a year long emotional commitment. In his capacity as director and co-writer of Harrogate Theatre’s annual pantomime, Lowe can’t stop thinking about gossipy dames and magic carpets.

“I love panto. I’m obsessed!” he admits. “I just love being a kid again, and making kids laugh in a way that I wanted to laugh when I was little, so I never get bored of it. And it’s a year long process. You’re already thinking about the next one, what you can do differently and how you can change it, and it lasts all year. My wife, bless her – I don’t know how she puts up with me.”

She doesn’t share this particular passion then?

“Oh, I think she’s just sick of the jokes! She’s sick of the routines, sick of me asking ‘Do you think this is funny?’ or ‘What do you think of this?’ It’s non-stop really, and sometimes she just says: ‘Leave it alone for a minute!’”

Sorry Mrs Lowe, but we’ve no complaints. Over the six years that Lowe has been working at Harrogate Theatre and building up a regular company, its panto productions have been showered with acclaim. In 2010, when it was staging Dick Whittington, Sir Ian McKellen popped along to catch it. Not only one of the most celebrated film and stage actors of his day, McKellen is something of a British panto legend himself.

“He’s such a great performer, especially as a dame over the years. He came and he sat down, right in the middle of a school group, and laughed all the way through. When he came out he said it was lovely, it was magical, and it was one of the best pantos he’s seen in the last ten years. Coming from him, that’s such a compliment.”

This year the company presents one of the copper-bottomed classics: Jack and the Beanstalk. In keeping with Harrogate’s established panto ethos, it’s a traditional show, broadly speaking. “I mean, every panto’s got to be modern in some ways, otherwise the audiences won’t come, but it is traditional in the sense that we just let the story drive it.”

Tradition is something of a theme at Harrogate. The theatre itself is well over 100 years old, and like Lowe, many members of the cast and crew return for the panto season year in, year out.

“As my dad always says, only squeaky hinges get fixed. I mean, we obviously get new people in every so often to keep it fresh, but I think if your back four are great, the rest of your team’s going to deliver, do you know what I mean?

“Everyone does panto but I’d like to think that at Harrogate we do it really spot on. It’s lovely watching the parents watching the kids who are watching the show. We keep getting told it’s all doom and gloom and things are getting more expensive and this, that and the other, but for two-and-a-half hours we get to go to fairytale land.”

There is one element of pantomimes that Lowe confesses to struggling with though. “I’m a big heavy metal fan in my own time, so trying to find the right pop songs for pantos is really hard for me, because I just don’t get it. We’ve got a One Direction song in at the minute and the kids sing every line from start to finish, but until I’d actually typed it in I didn’t know about the song.”

So is he never tempted to please himself and slip a bit of heavy metal in instead?

“Well actually, the first panto I ever did at Harrogate was Snow White And The Seven Dwarves, and the sting we used every time Snow White came on was the first four chords of Slayer’s South of Heaven, in piano form. Only one person ever noticed.”

Jack and the Beanstalk, Harrogate Theatre, until 13 January

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