Jack and Chicken with Paul Curley and Shane O'Reilly in Barnstorm's 'Jack'. Photo: Dylan Vaughan

Jack and Chicken with Paul Curley and Shane O'Reilly in Barnstorm's 'Jack'. Photo: Dylan Vaughan

Mike Kenny’s version of 'Jack and the Beanstalk' moves the familiar storyline to some thoughtful questioning of the roles of mothers and wives. The target audience (4-7 year-olds) was absent at the TYA ‘Gathering’ event, but one can be fairly well assured that they would have enjoyed the broad strokes of the piece and found some food for reflection in the more nuanced sections, as would their elders.

The production owes much to Andrew Clancy’s set design: he achieves clarity and simplicity with a humble cottage - a careful line drawing on foldaway flats - that doubles as both the Giant’s and Jack’s family homes. The delightful trickery is that the drawing opens in places like an advent calendar: a cupboard stage left (the bare one, of course) and the windows upstage that reveal the beanstalk. A table and chair are solidly built to withstand the weight and rages of the Giant. The scale of the tale is a triumph: upstairs in the Giant’s house, Paul Curley (Jack in the ‘normal’ world) becomes a puppeteer, manipulating a tiny facsimile of himself, beautifully crafted by Suse Reibisch, in full view of the audience.

Further inventiveness sees the snappy doubling of roles: while Shane O’Reilly can’t easily hide the Giant’s flaming red hair, he doubles in a cameo as the canny oul’ fella who pawns the beans off on Jack. Sarah Johnson goes one better – as Jack’s mother, Giant’s wife and, with a deft adjustment of dress, that vital family asset, the bargain cow.

Director Philip Hardy has established a plain narrative thread through an economy of theatrical devices that work with the production and neither obscure nor confuse the story. The acting of the newly-formed Barnstorm Ensemble is broadly sketched and physically boisterous. Paul Curley is constantly on the move, both as a nimble Jack and as puppeteer. The Giant (O’Reilly) is burly and churlish, a roaring boy who clumps convincingly and has a larynx like a saw-mill; Sarah Johnson, as his wife, is wraith-like but equally heavy-footed when required: when Mr. and Ms Giant go dancing, there’s no need for thunder – the Doc Martens resonate on the floorboards. As both his wife and Jack’s mother she has to harangue a pair of hopeless men.

Mike Kenny’s dialogue thrives on words flung from one character to another: “something” and “nothing”; “idle” and “stupid” echo frequently as they apply equally to the two males. The giant refuses to call Jack ‘Jack’, preferring to proclaim, “I’m talking to my Dinner!” Mrs. Giant, who is nearing the end of her tether in an unsatisfactory marriage, has some barbed alliterative endearments for her man.

The closing moments bring some consolations to the women. Jack turns a ‘likely gaffer’ in the end: he backs the right beans, the hen lays the golden eggs, and Mother can breathe a sigh of relief; the Giant is humbled by his own incompetence and finally admits to his wife an acknowledgement of her worth. The story-book closes with a resounding and satisfying ‘snap’!

Derek West has reviewed theatre for almost 25 years. He also edits publications for NAPD, the school principals’ national organisation.


  • Review
  • Theatre

Jack by Mike Kenny

12 October – 20 November, 2009

Produced by Barnstorm Theatre Company
In Draíocht (on tour)

Directed by Philip Hardy

Set Design: Andrew Clancy

Original Music: Stu Barker

Puppet Maker: Suse Reibisch

With: Paul Curley, Sarah Johnson and Shane O’Reilly

TYA (Theatre for Young Audiences) Ireland is the Irish centre of the International ASSITEJ, an organisation for practitioners, writers and academics work in this area. The ‘Gathering’ was a two-day event held at Draoícht Theatre, Blanchardstown on October 28th and 29th. The theme of the event was 'access' (for young people to the arts). The key-note speaker was Prof. Wolfgang Schneider President of ASSITEJ, with contributions from the Department of Education and Science, arts professionals as well as a host of theatre directors.