It’s never wise to advertise a show as “our funniest pantomime ever”, just in case you can’t quite live up to the claim.
Evolution Pantomimes have hugely raised the laugher bar at Shrewsbury’s Theatre Severn in recent years but, even for them, it’s actually quite difficult to turn Peter Pan into a fully-fledged, fun-filled panto because, as John Darling himself says in the show, “this story is awfully sad”.
The consequence is that previous productions have often been a hybrid crossover between a comedy that’s smothered by the moralistic story, and a faithful telling of J M Barrie’s charming tale that’s interrupted by panto ‘business’. And on press night at Theatre Severn, neither cast nor author nor audience seemed certain which to go for.
Within moments we’ve met the star of the show. Mr. Barrie fails to provide a Dame – but that sort of thing never stops Brad Fit. He’s back and bouncy as ever with the best gags. “I like hip hop…because it’s only two letters away from Chip Shop”. “Have you heard about the Wolverhampton advent calendar? Half the windows are boarded up.”
You see what I mean. But Mr Fitt did seem strangely flustered at times and lacked the opportunity to get stuck into the sidesplitting set pieces of previous pantos.
He’s initially accompanied by Nana the brilliant break dancing dog…and this could have been a wonderful running gag, but for the demands of the story.
In the nursery, Mr Darling is dropping huge hints about his forthcoming transformation into Captain Hook. Michael Neilson is an excellent upper class baddie. Having been to Eton with David Cameron, he wasn’t short of a role model. I was expecting a Nigel Farage joke, and it duly arrived. There’s a certain Tommy Cooper-ness about his delivery, which could well be further exploited. But writer/producer Paul Hendy has cut the final ‘return to the Nursery’ scene – where the traditional double casting is confirmed – so his circle is frustratingly incomplete.
The female casting is excellent. Debutant Alice Strachan makes a wonderfully mumsie Wendy; deeply concerned about the Lost Boys’ bedtimes and medicine. She clearly “gets” the irony of panto and there’s a knowing smile in her speaking voice and a beautiful quality to her singing. Kara Lane is equally impressive; doubling as Mrs Darling, The Indian Chief and a Thames Estuary Mermaid with accent to match. She’s a true showgirl; full of verve and vitality.
The long overdue admission that Eric Smith (“back despite popular demand) really can’t act is put to good purpose; he dies very well and quite often. Dean Bray simply IS Peter Pan, boastfully boyish, and a confident flyer…especially when assisted by classy video projection. And Snappy the Crocodile looks as crazy as an over-baked croissant.
The three-piece band works very hard, backing Jono Kitchen’s demanding and inventive choreography – the youngsters are exceptionally well drilled – and supporting a strong singing cast in a repertoire as eclectic as Rule Britannia and Rahul Gandhi’s election anthem.
All in all it’s a jolly good and pretty spectacular family show, but the script doesn’t stand scrutiny. There are uncomfortable stereotypes being presented to impressionable young children in a manner which doesn’t become the modern stage. I also suspect the company might have been grateful for a couple of extra days props rehearsal time.
However, there is no doubting Shrewsbury’s Peter Pan will be a resounding success and I’m already looking forward to Dick Whittington next year.