All New Adventures of Peter Pan

Paul Hendy
York Theatre Royal and Evolution Productions
York Theatre Royal

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Faye Campbell, Jason Battersby and Maddie Moate Credit: Pamela Raith
Robin Simpson Credit: Pamela Raith
Jonny Weldon and Paul Hawkyard Credit: Pamela Raith
The Black Diamonds and ensemble Credit: Pamela Raith

York Theatre Royal’s pantomime has undergone a transformation in the last couple of years, with the new team of director Juliet Foster and writer Paul Hendy reuniting after last year’s well-received Cinderella.

I’m pleased to report that it’s a winning partnership, and the result is a gloriously vibrant romp through some well-loved tropes and jokes, as well as one or two you may not have heard before.

The pitch is very much family-friendly, with a cast that includes YouTube content creators and at least one actor who’s known from CBeebies. But unlike some pantomimes, where gimmick casting shows up the weaknesses of the performers, this is really a showcase for their talents, warmth and engagement with the live audience.

As with many other reboots of the Extended Paniverse, Wendy (Francesca Benton-Stace) is now grown up, married to one of the Lost Boys and with a daughter (and human-sized dog) of their very own. Daughter Elizabeth is played charmingly by Faye Campbell, who like several other key cast members is returning from Cinderella.

The narrative unfolds much like the original J M Barrie, with a mysterious boy (and his shadow) flying in through the window, Tinkerbell (Maddie Moate) taking a dislike to the girl, Captain Hook (Paul Hawkyard) threatening Neverland’s tranquillity, etc. There’s a gesture towards a more girl-power take on the story, with Elizabeth taking more of the lead in crucial conflicts, but it’s not what you’d call a feminist re-reading. Likewise, there are a couple of references to contemporary politics, but the script is very careful to leave partisanship out of it and concentrate on escapism and positivity.

And this is something the show does brilliantly, with great heart all round. While I wasn’t a huge fan of the Pontins-esque enforced clap-along that opens the show, the fourth-wall breaking prologue that ensued quickly won me round and, from script to staging, it feels like a show infused with much care and love.

Jonny Weldon, as Starkey, does a lot of the Buttons-style audience corralling and punning, and he’s a great fit for the part—cheeky but self-deprecating and with great rapport with Robin Simpson, in the dame role as Mrs Smee. I’ve said it before but I’ll say it again, Simpson is a fantastic performer who’s never put a foot wrong as far as I’m concerned. He’s a great choice for the role, brilliant both at stirring up mischief and then staring blankly at his fellow actors as if he’s entirely bamboozled at what’s gone wrong. He also gets an array of stunning costumes (designed by Michael J Batchelor and Joey Arthurs), and even more stunning punchlines.

Paul Hawkyard, another charming performer who’s been seen in York before, is a joy as well. His Captain Hook revels in the boos, at times encouraging them to ear-splitting levels. He always stays the right side of scary and/or creepy, and like the rest of the team he looks to be having an absolute blast—never more than when strutting and gurning his way through a Pan-hating version of "Sweet Child O’ Mine".

Francesca Benton-Stace as Wendy gets some of the more moving straight songs, and performs them beautifully—but then is also able to show off a ridiculous accent and over-the-top characterisation as Myrtle the Mermaid.

The music is worth a special mention. While not taking quite the left-field swerves of some pantos I’ve seen, it still manages to pay tribute to, among others, Sondheim, Taylor Swift and Axl Rose, as well as repeatedly referencing Paul McCartney and Wings’s Live and Let Die theme. For no particular reason other than it’s a banger, really—and did I hear a snippet of "Running Up That Hill" mashed up with it at one point? It’s a sign, again, of the real affection and attention that has clearly been lavished on the production, throughout the cast and crew. Benjamin Dovey’s musical direction is excellent.

Also-excellent costume and set design (by a small army of Evolution Productions personnel) supports some great visual humour, and like last year the set is traditional but by no means boring.

Maddie Moate as Tinkerbell brings a great stage presence and—that word again—warmth. She plays the brattish side of the fairy just enough to ensure she’s an interesting and amusing but never unlikeable character. There’s great support from the ensemble dance troupe, and some jawdropping acrobatics from The Black Diamonds, a trio of East African tumblers who leap at each other to create startling feats of balance and strength.

Jason Battersby is slightly trammelled by probably the least interesting role, that of the titular boy who never grew up. But he sings well, flies acrobatically and has the requisite twinkle in his eye. Plus, he was clearly adored by the wide-eyed children in the audience, who longed to go on their own adventures with him; what more could you ask for?

All in all, it’s a pretty flawless family-friendly show. A gloriously energetic performance which honours panto traditions but by no means ends up staid, this should warm the hearts of young and old alike.

Reviewer: Mark Love-Smith

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