Writer: J M Barrie
Adaptor: Richard Gauntlett
Director: Richard Gauntlett
Musical Director: David Carter
Reviewer: Glen Pearce
To paraphrase J M Barrie’s most famous creation, panto should be an awfully big adventure and, in Norwich Theatre Royal’s Peter Pan, they have created an action-packed adventure for all the family.
Peter Pan offers arguably one of the strongest dramatic narrative of the panto canon and in this production it’s the dramatic narrative that takes centre stage. That’s not to say all the traditional panto elements are ignored – there’s plenty of corny jokes, slapstick and audience participation to keep traditionalists satisfied – but there’s also a feeling this production could work at any time of the year.
Richard Gauntlett’s adaptation sticks close to Barrie’s original as Peter Pan, the boy who never grows up, flies in through the Darling children’s nursery window and whisks them away to Neverland. Throw in battles with giant sea creatures, a villainous pirate gang led by the evil Captain Hook, and a mischievous fairy and the Darlings are in for a swashbuckling adventure.
From the opening moments, when lasers light up the front show cloth, it’s clear this is going to be a visually impressive staging and the Theatre Royal team pull out all the stops. From an impressive crocodile, a clever solution to portraying fairy Tinkerbell, to a ferocious sea monster, there is plenty to please the eye. The highlight, however, has to be some of the most impressive flying seen on stage in recent years. From Peter’s first flight to a surprise finale flight that leaves the audience gasping, it seems there’s nearly always someone aloft on the stage.
Spectacle without substance, however, won’t sustain audience interest and alongside a strong script the company works hard to win audience engagement. Charlotte Baptie in the title rôle gives us a convincing principal boy, working well with Ruth Bettridge as Wendy. On press night, real brothers Felix and Leo Spencer play John and Michael Darling and give assured performances that bely their years.
A good panto needs its comic element and the partnership between Ben Langley’s Starkey and writer and director Gauntlett’s Smee provides much of the traditional panto material. There’s a hysterical slapstick scene staged in a storm-tossed, rocking ship’s galley that has the audience in stitches but the pair seem to be having as much fun as their viewers.
If there’s a slight failing in the piece is that the traditional rôles of panto villan and panto Dame seem somewhat underwritten. Sid Sloane provides a wonderful Caribbean rap as Aunt Delilah but otherwise seems underutilised, while Kevin Kennedy’s Captain Hook is ably performed but never really achieves the baddie status that the rôle requires.
Musically David Carter has chosen wisely for the score. From a rousing opening London knees up medley through Ellie Goulding’s How Long Will I Love You, the musical numbers are well chosen and performed with aplomb by the company. There’s strong representation from West End musicals with Billy Elliott’s Electricity providing the accompaniment to Peter’s lesson on flight, and Matilda’s Revolting Children an apt intro to the Lost Boys. Even this year’s panto musical must haves, Let It Go and Pharrell Williams’ Happy are well integrated.
A good panto has cross generational appeal and the Theatre Royal has managed to produce a show that works on multiple levels. Only the most stony heart could watch this show and not end up believing in fairies!
Runs until 18 January