Chris Eldon Lee reviews ‘The Panto Adventures of Peter Pan’, which is at Shrewsbury’s Theatre Severn until Monday 3rd of January.
Absence certainly makes the heart grow fonder. I must confess to a tiny tear as the band struck up the overture at Friday’s press night. After so many miserable months, unbounded silliness is back again and we were all so glad to see Brad Fitt and his excellent team take to the stage once more, driving Coronavirus into the wings for two hours at least. Tears of joy flowed down the aisles.
This is a cleverly updated Peter Pan … almost a sequel … except the same things happen all over again. The opening scenes are so wittily peppered with well-dropped hints of what is to come, to excite the kids and reassure the adults. Wendy Darling is now a grown woman with a daughter of her own, Lizzie, who has (unseen) uncles called Michael and John. And it is she who is enticed away by the return of the boy who never grew up … on the night of the big family party. They are expecting over 600 guests. Us!
There is much invention beyond the pen of J M Barrie, but I was delighted to see that the traditions he instigated are perfectly preserved. So, Father goes on to play Captain Hook and, in this show, Mother reappears at Ethel the over-acting Pirate and then Myrtle the Estuary-accented Mermaid. Actor Katy Dean is new to the team … and a fabulous addition with her brilliant characterisations, perfectly timed comedy and Laura Kuenssberg mobile lips. We also welcomed with open arms Millie Davies, who gave us a memorably feisty, Welsh girl-power Tinkerbell.
This felt very much like an ensemble show this year … stretching all the cast’s talents just that little bit further than we’ve seen before. Leading lady Victoria McCabe for example gets stuck into a sword fight (albeit with a wooden weapon), Harry Winchester performs double aerial summersaults as Peter Pan and Phil Stewart’s Captain Hook shows his silly-old-man compassionate side, to take the edge off his scariness.
Relieved of the burden of his 4am alarm (he’s retired from the Radio Shropshire Breakfast Show) Eric Smith is a revelation. He must have as many costume changes as the Dame as he whizzes through numerous well-conceived comedy characters; from a moody, nose-picking teenager, through a swarthy pirate, to Erica the Glamourous Mermaid, a well-known secret agent, and an intergalactic superheroine, complete with blond wig and time machine. Eric really is the ‘Unexpected Star of the Show’.
The expected star is, of course, Shrewsbury’s beloved Brad Fitt … who squeezes into the storyline at Mrs Smee, Lizzie’s Nanny and Pirate Matron. He is just superb, again. Fitt’s straight-faced puns and put downs are always spot on. He has a wonderful cheeky, modest, warmth about him, which is irresistible.
He gets to fly on first, and even has a go at River Dancing. He orchestrates the infamous barrow sketch (it’s fruit and veg this year) and, to a huge cheer, wields on the wooden bench for the essential ‘it’s behind you’ ghost sequence. And I was delighted to see his boating skills have not improved. This time he’s trying to rescue Lizzie from Mutiny Island ( just round the Bay from Love Island) in a badly misbehaving canoe. He really shouldn’t do boats.
The whole colourful concoction is laced with great musical numbers for McCabe, Winchester and the cast to sing … from the emotional ‘Nothing’s Going To Harm You’ to the rum-punchy ‘Wellerman’.
The revolving stage with its excellently deigned sets keeps the show moving forward with endless energy … and the jokes and visual gags shower down upon us.
Is that crocodile on casters? Of course it is! This is panto … and panto at its very best.