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Peter Pan

15 December 2018

You’ll be Hooked

Peter Pan

by Alan McHugh and Jonathan Riley, adapted from original by J.M.Barrie

Qdos Entertainment at Richmond Theatre until 6th January

A review by Mark Aspen

Panto is theatre writ big, and they don’t come much bigger than Qdos’s Christmas pantos. With three dozen pantos across the country this year, Qdos is becoming a staple of the Christmas theatre season. Richmond’s turn this year is with Peter Pan, and we go straight in with BIG: glitter balls, chasing lights, lasers, pyros, front gauzes: the full-on opening razzmatazz sets the pace for a show with go.

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Whence comes the go? In a panto without (purists turn away) a dame (!) or a thigh-slapping principal boy, it comes from the high energy ensemble, motored by the turbo-charged principal performers. Peter Pan is billed as “the high-flying pantomime adventure” and indeed Peter makes his first entrance (and most of his entrances) flying. Tinkerbell is more down-to-earth and spends the whole show on roller skates.

Things move so quickly that even our noisy popcorn-strewing audience finds it hard to keep up and miss several “oh, no he isn’t” and “he’s behind you” moments. Still the gags, verbal and visual, do come thick and fast, so you really have to concentrate to follow the ruder of the triple-entendres.

So we go quickly to the quiddity of the plot: the Darlings Senior have already gone and Nanna the dog waves goodbye as Wendy and her brothers go to meet Peter Pan. Vikki Bebb makes an engaging Wendy, nicely prim and proper and sounding oh so much like Princess Elizabeth before she became Queen. She often says “orfen”. Smee says “she is so posh, she spells *art with a ph”.  Bebb later has a chance to demonstrate a lyrical singing voice with “Remember me when I’ve gone”.   Isobel Hathaway, as Wendy’s rival for Peter’s unrequited love, is a well-seasoned Tinkerbell, having played the role in many productions, but maybe not all on roller skates, a consummate skill that extends to vigorous dancing on her flashing wheels. Her Tinkerbell is a balanced blend of purity and petulance.

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When Peter Pan (quite literally) drops into Wendy’s life, the promised adventure is perhaps a bit more then she bargained for. Harry Francis brings a bold boyishness to the eponymous role as the fearless and undaunted “boy who never grew up”. Francis has a wide portfolio of nimble physical skills to bring to the role, including adroit flying sequences, stage fighting and excellent dancing (in a Matthew Bourne style gleaned from Sadlers Wells), as well as superb singing and acting. Francis is a scion of a well-known local acting family (his father had a lead role at Richmond Theatre this June).

When they reach Neverland they find a realm of extraordinary exotics (and not just the plants), peopled by Native Americans and the Lost Children (equal opportunity Lost Boys), the remarkably agile dancing ensemble and The Young Set respectively, all beautifully choreographed by Paul Robinson, whose skills we saw at Richmond in Aladdin last Christmas. Keisha Marina Atwell’s charming Tiger Lily, caught up in the middle of all these goings-on, seems a little bemused but musters all her high-kicking troops in defence of Neverland at the call of a conch shell.

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Also often to be found on the “shell-phone” is the Mimi, the Magical Mermaid, the epitome of piscine pulchritude, “38-22-and £1.43 per kilo”. Sassy Rachel Stanley brings her own sauce to this fish. Stanley may be fresh from filming Les Misérables, but there is nothing sole-full about her bubbly character. And isn’t it great to hear a genuine London voice back on the London stage. Mimi is the go-between twixt Neverland and the Pirates, so we swash our buckles and go to sea.

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Smee, the Jolly Roger’s befuddled boatswain is also unsure which side he should be on. He only got the job after “coming second in Neverland’s Got Talent”. By coincidence, Jon Clegg who plays Smee, was a popular finalist in a television show with a similar name and is a great favourite with our panto audience. Clegg has real rapscallion rapport with said audience, culminating with the staple singalong, Old MacDonald Had a Farm this time, where some of the youngest members of the audience on press night gave him a real challenge with their choice of (farm??) animal noises. Try a wolf (to music) … or a dolphin! These were a tough test even for an outstanding impressionist who had just amazed the television aficionados in the audience. Clegg appeals equally to his more sophisticated Richmond audience at the start of his shopping trolley punning gag, saying that the only meat he could buy in Waitrose was venison, and that was too deer!

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However, for wide audience appeal Robert Lindsay’s versatility, ranging from Sophocles, via a stack of Shakespeares, to Gorky on one hand, and the television sitcoms My Family and Citizen Smith on the other, must be the sine qua non (… on one hand … the mutt’s nuts on the other). Believe it or not this Peter Pan marks Robert Lindsay’s pantomime debut, so after BAFTA, Tony and Olivier Awards, he can now claim Captain Hook. This is from a man who celebrated his birthday on press night, and entered his seventieth year! And what a commanding Hook it is. This Hook takes over the stage; a hand gesture or a sideways glance is enough to have the audience in stiches as he spits sardonicisms like a sharp-shooting sniper. The comic timing is all there, even with puns that would make a Christmas-cracker writer blush. (Try, “where are your buccaneers” – “on the side of me bucking face”.) Lindsay’s musical theatre experience also stands him well, particularly with the parody numbers, such as “You’ve gotta pick a Pirate on two”. The problem is, as my lady companion put it, “his ruthless sexiness”. (Even one of his dancing – male – pirates’ timbers are shivered … raising a Hookian eyebrow from Lindsay.) Isn’t Captain Hook meant to be downright utterly wicked? This Hook has at least half the audience on his side.

Director Jonathan Kiley has nicely balanced the mood of the pantomime audience and there is something for everyone in this Peter Pan. Even the jokes range from in-yer-face to subtly under-the-counter. He packs in the pizzazz with the help of his designers, Mike Coltman on costumes, Nick Sagar on sound, and Pete Watts on lighting, whose pop event credentials show in the exuberance. All this energy is underpinned by the five strong musicians under musical director Pierce Tee, who play a wide variety of instruments, including a flugelhorn, whose timbre brings an unusual sense of menace to the dastardly deeds of Hook’s crew.

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One slight niggle is that the balance of voice and music is not always optimised making the jokes in the lyrics difficult to catch. Oh, and then there’s the Baby Shark Challenge, this years’ panto Zeitgeist, which is an earworm I can’t displace, so I have given up and am getting my granddaughter to show me the actions. Pinkfong has a lot to answer for!

But if you don’t want to find yourself dancing in the aisles or laughing until you cry, then don’t go to see this Peter Pan, for if you do … you’ll be Hooked.

Mark Aspen
December 2018

Photography by Craig Sugden

From → Pantomime, Reviews

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