Writer: Michael Harrison and Alan McHugh, from the book by J.M Barrie
Director: Michael Harrison
Reviewer: Selwyn Knight
It can’t be easy having to step into another performer’s shoes at short notice, especially when the show was written with the original incumbent in mind, but this is exactly what Darren Day has done: the Hippodrome’s panto for 2018/9 was originally written assuming Captain Hook would be played by Jimmy Osmond – as he was until 27 December when Osmond was taken ill, later diagnosed as having a stroke. The understudy, Luke Redford, took to the stage, but by a fortunate coincidence, Day was just finishing his run as Hook in Northampton and was able to fly in to take over with minimal rehearsal time. And so The Reviews Hub finds itself revisiting the Hippodrome to take a second look at the panto in its new guise.
For the older audience members, it’s fair to say that the experience is mildly surreal as many of Hook’s interactions with the other cast members were clearly written to rely on Osmond’s background. Much of the dialogue can be tweaked, especially in the very capable hands of Day and Hook’s main antagonist, Smee (brought to life by local favourite Matt Slack) – they have quickly built an excellent on-stage rapport so that one is never totally sure if a line has been scripted or is the result of a spontaneous flash of inspiration – but the song and dance numbers clearly can’t to the same extent and they often rely on the back catalogue of Osmond and his brothers, providing some memorable moments. Osmond is never far away and is the subject of several touching moments as he is mentioned in the script and in a truly moving tribute at the end. For the younger members of the audience, of course, the songs are just songs, regardless of provenance.
The Hippodrome panto is a local institution, one of the largest such productions staged by panto specialists, Qdos. It’s known for its extravagance and exuberance, and this year’s offering is no different. We have jaw-dropping special effects, for example, when a rather scary crocodile hovers menacingly over the audience, lots of star names, plenty of glitz and superb singing and dancing. The show sets out its stall in the opening few minutes as projections are cleverly used to take us over the rooftops of Birmingham and meet the Darlings and a bunch of chimney sweeps on the roof hoping to catch a glimpse of the mythical Peter Pan as he flies by. It’s a big, colourful and tuneful introduction to the show, including the first of many beautifully sung songs, this time by Wendy (Cassie Compton) as she sings of the face at the window.
The whole is extremely slick as the economic but very effective set from Ian Westbrook and 3D Creations moves us smoothly from location to location on the Hippodrome’s large stage. But all the required elements of panto are still here – hilarious set-pieces, interaction with the audience, groan-inducing jokes and spectacular performances from, this year, veterans of circus, The Timbuktu Tumblers with their breathtaking acrobatics, and Sascha Williams as a memorable drunken pirate.
It’s perhaps no surprise that Wolverhampton native, Meera Syal, does a very creditable Brummie accent as The Magical Mermaid, bringing her excellent comedic skills to the rôle and clearly relishing every moment. Kelly Gnauck as Tinkerbell, jealous of the attention Peter Pan gives Wendy gives a memorably sulky performance, and Jaymi Hensley, lately of Union J, is a likeable Pan. But the evening really belongs to Slack and Day.
Slack is the quintessential panto performer, a force of nature filling the stage whenever he appears. His physicality might remind one of Brian Conley, but Slack is no clone and it’s clear to see why this is now his sixth Hippodrome panto with him already confirmed for a seventh next year. He maintains a superb rapport with the audience with plenty of kid-pleasing silliness and just enough innuendo to amuse the adults. It’s already hard to imagine a Hippodrome panto without him.
The Hippodrome is to be commended for the way in which Osmond’s illness was dealt with at the time and the respectful way in which Day was brought in to ensure the show goes on; the show acknowledges that and is the better for it. It’s hard to imagine a better panto package than that bought to us this year by the Hippodrome, Day, Slack and the rest; a sparkling extravaganza leaving you wanting more.
Runs Until 27 January 2019 | Image: Simon Hadley