It’s not officially Christmas until you’ve heard Jonathan Wilkes call out ‘Ay Up Me Ducks’, and this year’s Regent Theatre panto features all the madcap mayhem that Stoke-on-Trent audiences have come to expect, complete with everyone’s favourite jokes and some magical special effects.
The story of Jack and the Beanstalk is one we’ve been told countless times over the years. Doomed to sell his trusty cow, join Jack and his family as they fight to outwit the evil giant, win riches beyond his wildest dreams and the hand of the girl he loves. The Crossroads team has done a fabulous job of injecting some classic panto fun into the traditional folktale in the form of 3D fun, slapstick songs and local lingo.
This year marks Jonny’s 19th panto season in the city, and the longstanding tradition is one many look forward to year after year. Wilkes has a real connection with a local audiences, one that’s been honed over two decades of panto performances with his passion for the Potteries evident from his introductory number ‘We Love This City’, sung to the tune of Starships well-known number one. Jonny’s loveable, cheeky charm allows him to deliver the witty banter and football quips with a wink and a smile and very much get away with it.
Joining him this year was Kai Owen, taking a year off from being the villain, having played Captain Hook and Robin Hood’s Sheriff of Stokingham in previous years. It’s his ninth panto season in the city, bringing a vibrancy to the role of Farmer Trot, Jack’s dad, generating roars of laughter throughout a fast-paced touch-and-go tongue twister and the Trunk of Truth. It’s safe to say that Kai is considered an honorary Stokie, with the Welshman having won over the crowds with his consistently joyous presence and ability to give Wilkes as good as he gets.
Generating the boos this year was none other than Noel Sullivan of Hear’say fame, with he and Kai bonding over their Welsh heritage. The former pop star stepped into the shoes of Fleshcreep – servant of the hungry giant – who showed off his impressive vocal abilities through numerous interrupted renditions of Queen’s Don’t Stop Me Now. He made for a fantastic ‘baddie’ and his disguises had the crowd howling, bringing a wonderful blend of devilish charm and dash to the role. Together the comedic trio provided a triple helping of hijinks and humour that would leave Regent regulars giggling long after the curtain closed.
Bringing a sprinkling of magic to the show was Rio Maye as The Spirit of the Beans. The recent Wilkes Academy graduate made her professional debut and it’s safe to say that her sass and stage presence will see her go far, while Michelle Andrews as Princess Jill, Jack’s love interest, really helped keep the narrative on track. The Princess’s vocal prowess was totally enchanting, and her strength of character was one to be admired by children and adults alike.
The ensemble dancers deserve a special mention, leaping across the stage in expertly executed routines. All of the dancers are students and graduates of the Wilkes Academy of Performing Arts, run by Jonny and his wife Nikki. I think it’s wonderful for Jonny to introduce the next generation of actors, singers, and dancers into the performance industry with such an incredible opportunity.
The songs were upbeat and energising, the audience clapping along and cheering if their hometown was mentioned, but a highlight was certainly the chaotic cannon number which saw Jonny, Michelle, Kai and Noel acting out various professions they may have if they weren’t in panto, which narrowly avoided ending in serious injury, while soaking front-row watchers as Jonny practised his window washing services.
The 3D element was a real spectacle for the youngsters and adults alike, with the visual effects immersing the audience into the story as Jonny and Kai crept through the castle and came face to face with the giant.
The Regent Theatre’s festive production of Jack and the Beanstalk provided the perfect opportunity to unite families, thrill generations and celebrate the city of Stoke-on-Trent. It felt like a really strong message this year to take pride in our city, and the magic that can happen when we work together towards a common goal. For me, the panto is such a special part of the season, bringing people to the theatre who may not necessarily go to see performances throughout the other 11 months of the year, with over 50,000 fans attending pantomime at the Regent Theatre each festive season.
Jonny’s 19th year was undoubtedly a sensational return for the performer, who delivered a masterclass in panto humour, getting the balance of over-the-head jokes just right. Packed with spectacular special effects, Stokie songs, and plenty of audience participation, Jack and the Beanstalk is a panto of gigantic proportions that will no doubt sprinkle some magic over the festive season.
You can buy tickets to see Jack and the Beanstalk at The Regent Theatre here.