“Jack!” at Chickenshed – 30/09/22

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I have a confession to make and some of you will have figured it out already. I know the blog is called “London With a Toddler” but I don’t actually possess a toddler any more. I mentioned a few posts back that I was training up an heir apparent but I still have the original toddler lurking around here somewhere and occasionally I like to take him to something that’s more on his current level than the CBeebies shows we used to take in together. And this was right on a teenager’s level – rap, video games and the occasional fart joke. But luckily there was a lengthy reference to The Who for oldies like me.

Let’s start at the beginning though, because I love a good tube chaos story and well…this was a doozie. As soon as we got onto the Victoria Line, there was an announcement to say that there were severe delays on the Piccadilly Line. I started racking my brains thinking of non-Piccadilly ways to Chickenshed but my North London geography is a bit sketchy, even in the bit of North London that I live in so I was coming up blank.

While I was doing all this brain-racking, I’d failed to notice that we’d been at Blackhorse Road for a suspiciously long time. Eventually the driver also picked up on this and announced that we were being held due to a “passenger alarm”. Turns out there were now also severe delays on the Victoria Line, if only our train. We got moving again but the alarm was pulled again at Tottenham Hale and we stopped there for just as long. By the time we got to Finsbury Park, we were feeling like we could handle anything the Picc line could throw at us. Plus, there was a giant dog. Winning.

Until Bounds Green, where we got turfed out and had to go and find a bus. Happily, the 299 goes from Bounds Green straight to Chickenshed. When I say straight, this is a loose interpretation which includes a “three sides of a square hail-and-ride” section but it was better than nothing. We got on the bus at 6:30 and at 6:59 exactly, we were busting through the doors just in time for the show to start. Phew!

The basic story of “Jack!” will be very familiar to you all. An impoverished family selling their most treasured possession to try and make ends meet. The twist is that the treasured possession is a games console and the family are poor because the father died and they lost his video games arcade on the pier. To get it back Jack must  – you guessed it – climb the levels of a video game called The Beanstalk. In this quest, he’s helped by his sister Littleun, his Dad’s old right-hand man Fred, two time-travelling Tech Supporters and a variety of Avatars. Everyone’s favourite avatar is surely the Samurai but I won’t spoiler it by telling you why.

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This is a full-on Chickenshed production, with a cast of 800 on rotation. Each individual cast is 200-strong and it really packs a punch when the stage is crammed full of glitter or monsters or neon-clad dancers. I particularly loved the way the UV light picked up on the orange and yellow eyeshadow  – it was a very cool effect. I have no idea how you co-ordinate so many people into doing anything vaguely together but Chickenshed make it look easy. The large-scale numbers are like a tableau – it’s not that everyone is doing the same thing at the same time but more creating a scene where there are lots of different things to look at. This allows the signers to blend in with the rest of the company and for cast members of all ages and abilities to take part. There are are some incredibly skilled dancers and singers but I love the fact that it’s not just the super-talented ones that get spotlit but there is a chance for everyone to shine. And yes, I am tearing up as I write this. It’s just such a lovely, inclusive place.

I mentioned signers a moment ago but wanted to highlight that the whole show has sign language interpretation throughout, including songs. I now know the BSL for “monster”, which I’m sure will come in useful at SwingTrain sometime. Each character has a signer shadowing their movements and facial expressions so nothing is lost by watching them. I got momentarily confused when someone who previously had a speaking role reappeared as a signer because her voice suddenly seemed to be coming from elsewhere but then, I do get easily confused.

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As a show it wasn’t as whimsical as some of the previous fairytale shows we’ve been to, or as thought-provoking as something like “How to Make a Better World“. But it was one of the most fun productions we’ve seen there, which just brilliantly demonstrates the Chickenshed versatility. Yes, they can make shows which are deeply moving and meaningful but they also make shows which are stuffed full of confetti, high-energy dance routines and pop culture references. Reuben particularly appreciated the nods to Star Wars and Sonic I think. And I enjoyed the aforementioned Who homage as well as a pastiche of Chris Tarrant, with just the right dramatic lighting.

There are some familiar ‘Shed faces in the cast but I think this is the first show I’ve seen with Hector Dogliani (Jack) in a lead role. His interpretation of lonely teen Jack was full of heart and provoked empathy from the start – a far cry from the selfish, dopey Jack we normally see in this story. He reminded me of a young Robert Pattinson and had a surprisingly deep, soulful voice. I’m not sure who we saw as Littleun but she was great too, with a sweet singing and a digestive system that knocked the bad guys right out. They were very believable as brother and sister and the family dynamic was lovely. No, I’m not crying again. But I was a little at the end.

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I should also say that the sets are incredible and really pull you into the video game world. I loved the Toy Story white fluffy clouds at the back which are almost out of sight but are such a nice touch. Reuben was straining to hear whether the noises at the beginning were Sonic’s rings or Mario’s coins but he concluded it was both at once. I have no idea whether he’s right or not. There was some prerecorded music I think but also a live band and I think all the singing was live as well. Just an incredible production all round.

So if you want a show that’s sharp enough for your teen but also colourful and engaging enough for your little ones, look no further. It’s not overtly Christmassy but it’s panto – what could be more Christmassy than that?

“Jack!” runs until 7th January. For tickets and more info, click here. 

Disclaimer: I received free press tickets in exchange for a review but all opinions remain honest and my own.

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