First Family Entertainment
Opera House, Manchester
From 08 December 2012 to 13 January 2013
Review by David Chadderton
The headliner for this year's panto at the Opera House is star of Knight Rider, Baywatch and, most recently, Britain's Got Talent David Hasselhof, now famous enough to be referred to simply as "The Hoff". He is bringing his Captain Hook to Manchester, a role he first played for First Family at the New Wimbledon Theatre in 2010.
Peter Pan is growing in popularity as a panto, especially since the copyright on J M Barrie's original expired (for the second time) in 2007 giving creative freedom to its adaptors. However it doesn't comfortably fit into the panto mould. While there is great panto villain in Hook and the tradition of a female actor playing Pan goes back to the original production in 1904, there is a lot more story to cram in than the average panto and no obvious place for a dame, song and dance routines or some of the standard panto scenes.
The First Family version is pretty faithful to the original story. There are some notable omissions—such as the Lost Boys shooting down the "Wendy Bird" and Wendy and Peter exchanging "kissses"—but the plot flows nicely and makes sense (the plot is certainly more coherent than the non-panto version at the Octagon).
The odd part is the way in which the songs are crowbarred into the show. It starts fairly conventionally with an Edwardian winter street chorus singing "A Christmas Carol" from Scrooge, but this is interrupted by a sixties-style girl group trio singing pop / soul numbers, which seems to echo Little Shop of Horrors except that the songs have nothing whatsoever to do with the story. This same trio (Donna Hines, Jenny Fitzpatrick and Lakesha Cammock) also act briefly as narrators at the beginning and make a memorable appearance as flying—rather than swimming—mermaids.
There is no dame, but the comic role is filled, unusually, by the villain's sidekick, Smee, played with gusto by Tam Ryan, back for his third consecutive Opera House panto. He does everything that a panto comic should and he does it well, from his stand-up routines and his call-and-return catchphrase to the community song, all with plenty of banter with the audience. For the community song, we are asked to join in with the Korean YouTube song and dance hit "Gangnam Style", a feature of many pantos this year throughout the country.
While some of the comic routines on the pirate ship go on too long and miss some of the comic timing, this show's take on the panto staple "The Twelve Days of Christmas" is hilarious; while I laughed at many of the terrible puns and gags, this scene left me with tears rolling down my face with laughter.
What of The Hoff? He gets the balance right between playing the celebrity with lots of references to his past TV hits and playing the panto villain. His is a great name to draw people in to the show, and his recent fans will not be disappointed—although he isn't Michael Knight any more.
Amy Bird comes across as a principal boy version of Peter, whereas Lorna Want plays more the Wendy from the original story than a principal girl. Khiley Williams is a strong Tiger Lily, leading her Indians forcefully and certainly not a weak damsel in distress. Chorus member Shane Knight gets the skin roles in a superb crocodile outfit but a terrible one for Nana the dog, in which he looks like someone crawling around on his hands and knees in a pajama case.
Technically there are some superb moments in this show. There is a lot of flying, which is done very well, and some nice integration of animation for Pan's shadow (which Wendy doesn't have to sew back on for him in this version), Tinker Bell and a wonderful gauze flying sequence over various landscapes. The only technical aspect to let it down is the sound which is very loud but rather dull, affecting the clarity of the words.
But overall, if you want a spectacular family panto with a big star and lots of fun for all the family, that's exactly what you will get from Peter Pan at the Opera House.