A giant re-interpretation

7 January 2021

What do you get when you put a stand up comedian, vegetables, and a gentle giant in the kitchen? Rosalind Appleby and junior reviewer Asha Grandage explore Spare Parts Puppet Theatre’s fun new rework of a familiar tale.

Beanstalk, Spare Parts Puppet Theatre Company ·
Spare Parts Puppet Theatre, Fremantle, 9 December 2020 ·

There’s nothing like the magic of the theatre.

Take a darkened room full of expectant children, a stage set with a quaint kitchen packed with curious items, and a playful tune that sounds like cartoon music. All it takes is one goose to pop its head around a cupboard and the children are squealing with laughter.

Beanstalk marks the return to the theatre of Perth’s popular puppet theatre company and the team behind the new production know how to create theatrical magic. Director Philip Mitchell’s team includes lighting designer Kristie Smith and set designer Bryan Woltjen who have created a set that is an enthralling mix of whimsy and science laboratory, with bits that open, light up and erupt. Composer Lee Buddle brings a playful touch with his sound design and Jackson Harrison’s puppets are key. At the epicentre is comedian Sam Longley, the show’s writer and solo performer.

Longley is Brian, a cloud giant with a ripper Aussie accent who is a bit fearful of “groundlers” like us after his experience with Jack. In his kindly way Brian describes Jack as “relaxed” rather than lazy. Brian just wants to make his clouds and live in peace so when Jack steals Brian’s gold, his harp and his goose, Brian tries to maintain his kindness. After all, “aggression is disarmed when met with kindness”.

Sam Longley is Brian the cloud giant who just wants to make clouds and live in peace in his kitchen. Photo by Rebecca Mansell

My seven year old loved Longley’s re-interpretation of Jack and the Beanstalk. “It was good to hear a different version of the story, to hear what the giant thought and see his point of view.”

In a fun creative twist the other characters in the story are devised from a motley collection of vegetables and items from Brian’s kitchen. Jack is a loaf of bread, his mother an elegant celery bunch, and there are squashable tomatoes and erupting popcorn kernels. You can imagine the delightful mess.

All does not go well for Brian and soon the audience members became vocal in their advice to the poor giant. The highlight of the show for my nine year old son was the final moment when (spoiler alert) Brian finally got to tear that loaf of bread apart.

Longley’s gags are good, (“You wouldn’t believe how much canyon giants eat, they’re like a bottomless pit)” and the story is highly relatable for children. Everyone knows what it is like to be accused of something they didn’t do, or picked on because of the way they look. The clouds are a lovely metaphor to unpack with older children, particularly the storm clouds which Brian makes when he is finding it difficult to contain his anger. He explains that with the storm comes rain and new life, an important part of the cycle.  

Longley is 6 feet 10 inches tall, making him a very believable giant. And after years of working in stand-up comedy he knows how to win over a tough crowd, surely a helpful skill for children’s shows – no one is more honest than a child!  He’s also a one-man band; at the Wednesday 1pm show he delivered some fun improv when props became unstuck, had an endearing manner with the vegetable characters, and gave the most engaging post-show Q&A my children have witnessed.

But holding the interest of a group of children for 50 minutes is a lot of pressure for one actor and a few vegetables and the magic did fade occasionally. The song “Fee Fi Fo Fum” was not in a flattering range for Longley’s voice and the plot was stalled by extensive back stories about Brian’s parents, and scientific interjections about cloud making which could have been more succinct. The side stories did allow for some fun set tricks though: a volcano in a saucepan, and cloud making on the kitchen bench with a fluffy substance that looked suspiciously like fairy floss.

Beanstalk is not one of Spare Parts’ most spectacular theatre shows, but it is one that will travel well, pack down into boxes, and look delightful when set up in a school hall, which is clearly what this show is designed for. It’s great to see the company returning to the theatre and bringing some magic back into the lives of our children.

Junior Review Asha Grandage, age 8 ·

Fruit and vegetables become props and characters in ‘Beanstalk’. Photo by Rebecca Mansell

Beanstalk is a really clever and fun show. In this version of the famous fairy tale, Jack is actually very lazy and turns out to be a thief! Brian the giant, who is usually shown as a frightening human-eating character, is actually very kind, and tries to be a good host to Jack.

Written and performed by Sam Longley and directed by Philip Mitchell, this hilarious show is written from the giant’s perspective.

Brian the giant performs the story with fruit and vegetables as props and other characters. For example, people – whom the giant calls “groundlers”, are tomatoes!

Brian lives in a lovely rustic cloud kitchen, cleverly designed by Bryan Woltjen. When Jack finds the giant’s cloud kitchen, he is very rude about it!

Lee Buddle’s bouncy and fun score is the perfect accompaniment to Sam’s performance. You can hear percussion made with pots, pans and cutlery, and there is even the sound of a carrot being eaten!

Sam is an amazing performer, and this show is excellent fun. If you need a laugh and a good message, Spare Parts Puppet Theatre’s Beanstalk is the best place to go! The Spare Parts foyer is also lots of fun, and you can explore and play with some puppets there.

Beanstalk‘s public season runs 11 – 30 January and then tours regionally. Recommended age 5+.

Pictured top: Comedian Sam Longley stars alongside Jack (played by a loaf of bread) in ‘Beanstalk’. Photo by Rebecca Mansell

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Author —
Rosalind Appleby

Rosalind is an arts journalist, author and speaker. She was co-managing editor and founding board member of Seesaw Magazine 2018 – 2023, is author of Women of Note, and has written for The West Australian, The Guardian, The Australian, Limelight magazine and Opera magazine (UK). She loves park percussion instruments.

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