Second on the right and straight on to entrancement. At the Devonshire Park Theatre this Christmas, Peter Pan knows the route to the perfect pantomime experience.
The first thing to say is that Peter Pan is not your standard pantomime. Not a script pulled down off the shelf and dusted off. Not even one of Chris Jordan’s previous excellent productions with a bit of reworking. Peter Pan is a completely original project, with new dimensions and some surprises.
But gentle theatre-goers, there is no cause for alarm. All your favourite panto elements are retained. The costumes are fabulous, the effects are breath-taking, and the jokes are as wincingly painful as ever. The hero is dashing and the baddie is thoroughly boo-able. A flurry of dancers – is that the correct collective noun? – fills the stage.
So how is Peter Pan distinctively different? It does retain the integrity of J M Barrie’s immortal story but it weaves in all those panto essentials. It’s a precarious balance, but this show has such warmth, and such a lovely human story to tell, that it really doesn’t matter if once or twice you see the joins.
Every time you’re just getting comfy, something deliciously surprising happens. Even the opening scene signals a departure from the old format: no Good Fairy appearing from stage right in a flash of stardust. Instead, a breezy London medley and a bustling street scene that hints at Oliver or Mary Poppins, at least until the Dame bursts into song.
The comic leads, that seasoned pairing of Martyn Knight and Tucker, are a riot. Tucker is his usual mischievous self as Smee, and Martyn plays Mrs Smee with utter outrageous assurance. You’d need to travel far and wide to find a better Dame on the UK circuit. There are priceless moments. The infamous rake on the Devonshire Park stage becomes a virtue, with Smee and Mrs Smee paddling their boat frantically against a virtual current that threatens to sweep them off the edge and into the front row.
The flying, by no fewer than four cast members, is absolutely magical. TIn the title role, Ewan Goddard looks, acts and sings the part perfectly. His tussles with Brian Capron’s masterfully fiendish Captain Hook are heroic and feisty, but he never loses that youthful naivety.
Special effects are brilliant. We are at risk of spoiling if much more is said, but you will be thrilled as well as startled. And hang it, I can’t not mention the most adorable upstaging Nana that ever pulled on a doggy costume. Beth Bradley, take a bow. Or a bone.
Huge scene changes mean plenty of front-cloth action, but all played with vigour and humour, so that we are well distracted from whatever magic Paul Debreczeny’s expert crew are creating behind. Tucker is a master of those moments, and his engaging rapport with the audience is a real strength of the show.
Callum McCabe and Zephan Robinson (who alternate with Lev Govorovski and Charlie Allen) are clear and confident as John and Michael. The Lost Boys – two alternating teams of local youngsters – deliver their “Little Bit Gory” number brightly and boldly, while the girl dancers of the Deborah Lamb School are right on the button. The adult ensemble is energetic and versatile, with a sassy Tiger Lily (Alexandra Robinson) standing out.
Britain’s Got Talent stars Twist and Pulse are a revelation: not only sensational dancers but also very skilled comic actors, turning gormless into an art form as Hook’s sidekicks. Ashleigh Drew’s Wendy has the character nailed: a perfect balance of sweet and assertive, with a lovely singing voice and a startlingly expert street-dancing turn in the middle of a Twist and Pulse number.
Kimmi Richards is a delightfully petulant Tinker Bell on roller skates, and Rebecca Lisewski has the stunning voice of a young Bette Midler in her fabulous trio of diva mermaids.
Under musical directors Sarah Travis and Robert Cousins the band has a tuneful panache. Douglas Morgan lights the show with imagination as well as expertise, and Shelley Claridge’s team has created dazzling costumes. It all adds up. Mr Jordan, you’ve done it again. Five stars. By Kevin Anderson.