This limp Jack and the Beanstalk proves the Palladium panto formula has grown stale

Bean there, done that: Julian Clary and Louis Gaunt in Jack and the Beanstalk at the London Palladium - Paul Coltas
Bean there, done that: Julian Clary and Louis Gaunt in Jack and the Beanstalk at the London Palladium - Paul Coltas

There is (oh yes there is) a beanstalk-related groaner about girth in this year’s smorgasbord of festive filth at the Palladium. Yep, such gags are not only low-hanging fruit but pretty much the entire point each time Julian Clary and co sashay forth with their mix of big-bucks glitz and end-of-the-pier gutter.

But: has someone had a quiet word? Even the smut seems dialled down in this limp seventh outing – despite the very obviously priapic beanstalk that rises from the stalls into the gods at the end of the first act. (Sorry for the spoiler, but it's one of very few highlights, so it seems only fair to mention it.)

For all its arch risqué dazzle, the Palladium panto formula is starting to feel increasingly safe. Once again Clary lords it in a series of unhinged costumes (as the Spirit of the Bean, offering variations on a theme: a French bean, dressed as Napoleon; a runner bean, dressed in marathon gear) while turning everything – anything – into a school boy-style euphemism.

Ventriloquist Paul Verdin gets more smugly self-satisfied with each appearance despite turning in exactly the same act. Gary Wilmot sings a few tongue-twister ditties in a frock. Nigel Havers is the doddery stooge, a character hopelessly in search of a part. At least there is a smidgen of plot, but blink and you’ll miss it – as I did with the presumably pivotal rescue of Havers’ King Nigel from a huge animatronic giant.

What’s different this time round is the open recognition of that formula. There’s a meta self-awareness throughout, with repeated references to actor cues and “the story” – funny the first time, less so the fourth. Dawn French, playing a gurning Dame Trott who can’t stop producing children (including scruffy blond twins, Morris and Doris, named after their father), at one point rings her agent to ask if she can transfer to Ian McKellen’s panto instead. I know how she feels. Only Alexandra Burke rises to the occasion as a properly fabulous villainous Mrs Blunderbore.

There’s still an aura of sub-Las Vegas bling to Michael Harrison’s production; something’s got to justify a top ticket price of £190. Yet where in the past the Palladium panto has been rich in spectacle, this year you mainly get filler, like a mediocre dance sequence featuring frying pans and a courgette, and another with chickens: not so much set-pieces as random moments strung together. There's an ongoing joke about Havers needing to retire. He's not, I’m starting to think, the only one.

Until Jan 15;