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PC Pan

WENDY & PETER PAN

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 15th January 2014

Ella Hickson has adapted J M Barrie’s classic tale for this family-oriented fare – giving us a straight play rather than yet another pantomime version.  Giving Wendy first billing in the title sets the tone: this is an updated version in terms of content if not setting.  There are no mermaids, no what would have been called ‘Red Indians’ – instead we get Tiger Lily as an urban Amazon warrior… Wendy (an earnest Fiona Button) serious and bossy even when she’s supposed to be having fun, asserts herself, learning to go beyond the expectations of her gender imposed on her by a patriarchal society.  Well, good for her.  It just seems a little laboured at times.

Where this production works best is when J M Barrie’s hand is still detectable.  The plot structure is unaltered, although there is the addition of a fourth Darling child whose demise in the early moments of the play is excellently handled and very moving.  Kudos to actor Colin Ryan who establishes a likeable character in a few deft strokes.  The story becomes Wendy’s quest to get her lost boy brother back, blaming herself for his illness – she neglected to sew a button on his pyjamas.

Where it falls short and breaks its own magic spell is with the dialogue which lurches from passable Edwardian English to contemporary slang.  Mrs Darling telling her husband to ‘bog off’ just ain’t right, however empowered and suffragette-y she might have become.

Peter Pan himself (Sam Swann) looks the part and moves with grace and energy, lifted and held aloft by a chorus of his ‘shadows’, a troupe of ghostly pallbearers.  Of course at times ropes and wires are involved but the workings of his flight are never hidden from us.  It’s about make-believe and imagination after all.  Some of his lines make you cringe.  I understand the updated dialogue might engage a young audience but it robs the play of some of its ‘otherness’ and magical qualities.

Charlotte Mills’s Tinkerbell is a big surprise, sounding like Kathy Burke with none of the finesse.  It is easy to imagine her propping up the bar at the Queen Vic, her tiny wings part of a raucous hen night uniform.

The crocodile is also a surprise – and a disappointing one.  Arthur Kyeyune is a skilled physical performer but his ‘crocodile’ is no more than a man in a top hat and long coat, creeping and stalking around, holding a clock.  Imagine Baron Samedi meeting Flava Flav.  As a symbol of Hook’s impending mortality he is rather disturbing (he is also the doctor who attends the dying Darling) but how can they not show us a crocodile?  Given the beauty and invention of the rest of Colin Richmond’s design work for this production, this is very unsatisfying.  On the other hand, Hook’s pirate ship is wonderfully impressive, a storybook galleon with a giant skull and skeleton hands as figurehead, gliding and revolving across the stage.

Hook (an enjoyable Guy Henry) is less aristocratic than he is usually portrayed.  There are hints at the tragedy of the human condition here as he despises and envies the lost boys their youth.  But without a proper crocodile, his demise is a letdown.  His interactions with Gregory Gudgeon’s Smee lighten the mood and break the fourth wall more effectively than Pan’s appeal for applause to resurrect his fairy friend.

Visually engaging, occasionally touching, Wendy & Peter Pan takes itself a little too seriously at times, too heavy-footed to really get off the ground.

Hook (Guy Henry) and Smee (Gregory Gudgeon) set sail.  Photo: Manuel Harlan.

Hook (Guy Henry) and Smee (Gregory Gudgeon) set sail. Photo: Manuel Harlan.

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Peter Panto

PETER PAN

Theatre Royal, Nottingham, Sunday 15th December, 2013

 

Every time I go to see a version of Peter Pan, I am struck by how it’s invariably a mixed bag of a thing: neither a pure pantomime nor a ‘straight’ (for want of a better term) play.  The J M Barrie original acknowledges the audience and encourages participation (and woe betide any version that doesn’t invite us to aver our belief in fairies!).

This one begins, play-like, in the nursery – as opposed to the usual chorus of dancing villagers that begins most pantomimes.  When Peter Pan (Barney Harwood) flies in through the window, he also breaks the fourth wall, and we’re off.  Looking trimmer than ever (thanks to the rigours of his Blue Peter challenges) Harwood is effortlessly boyish and innocent and yet again I am reminded of the high quality of his singing voice.  Many a talent show wannabe would kill to have such a pop-star sound. He is not alone: Wendy (Hannah Nicholas), Tinkerbell (Isobel Hathaway) and Tiger Lily (Billie Kay) all have impressive voices – the songs are ‘originals’ and tuneful enough, but I like to hear familiar if incongruous numbers in a panto; something we can all sing along with.

Su Pollard, playing to a home crowd, is good value as magical mermaid Mimi, essentially playing the dame’s role.  It’s a pity she doesn’t get a range of outlandish outfits to show off but her off-colour jokes are aimed squarely at the older members of the audience are very funny.  She is beaten in the comedy stakes however by Ben Nickless as Mr Smee.  Nickless embodies the most traditional elements of the show, an old-school entertainer – we quickly overlook he is on the side of the baddie.

And what a baddie it is!  As Captain Hook, David Hasselhoff is remarkable.  If you think Americans don’t ‘get’ panto, think again.  He strides around like a colossus, thoroughly at home in his characterisation and a script that is riddled with Hoff-mockery.   Of course there are Baywatch and Knight Rider gags – how could there not be? – but The Hoff takes it all on the chin and somehow retains his dignity, his glorious, cheesy dignity.  I think I’m in love.

And so this particular version of Peter Pan rattles along at a fair pace, providing plenty to entertain everyone.  It hits all the plot points, entertains kids and adults of all ages, is camper than Christmas and leaves you with a big grin on your face.  Highly recommended.

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Hoff the Hook