Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury
First seen as a pantomime in the 1990s, Peter Pan is now one of the country's favourite titles with pantomime versions far outweighing J M Barrie's 1904 tale of the boy who never grew up.
The true mark of a good pantomime is how well it balances the original story with the genre's conventions and, whilst many traditionalists bemoan the Pan in Panto, Evolution Productions' rendering demonstrates just how successful, enjoyable and true to the form the famous Neverland tale can be.
One of pantomime's central characters is the Dame and, in Paul Hendy's production, Ben Roddy returns to the Marlowe Theatre in the role of Mrs Smee. At first the Darling's Nanny and later a pirate aboard the Jolly Roger, Roddy is one of the country's finest cross-dressed Damsels, having refined his form and learnt from the best. His ability to mix physicality with verbal dexterity, anarchy and aggression with care and kindness whilst always ensuring the right mix of male and female characteristics makes his Dame a joy to behold.
Of course Mrs Smee is an invented character, and the role of the Comic in this production goes to Lloyd Hollett's Mr Starkey. A sparring partner for Mrs Smee and Hook, Hollett is at the top of his game eliciting laughs from his extreme facial gymnastics and ability to embrace the audience with a simple aside. This year, his role appears somewhat diminished, being afforded neither opening spot nor much time to establish the vulnerability of the Comic as per Buttons, Simple Simon or Muddles. Indeed, Gemma Hunt's Tiger Lily incites the audience's interaction on more occasions than Mr Starkey and leads a host of strong female characters in a title that so frequently lacks them.
As Tiger Lily, Hunt demonstrates her triple threat prowess, but also delivers a role to inspire with Hendy penning a script that reminds its audience of the importance of equality, empowerment and self-belief. Wendi Peters's Big Chief Squatting Cow is a strong leader for the Crazy Horses Tribe and enables Peters to share her wonderful comic timing and characterisation across a trio of roles, also including a majestic Mrs Darling and a fun-loving Mermaid.
Whilst recent scholarship has revealed Barrie originally intended his Villain to be played by an actress, Canterbury's production retains the convention of Hook as a male. Shaun Williamson fully embraces the role and resists its dandification, favouring a suave but frustrated Hook who, like Peter, wants a mother, thus further strengthening the hatred he feels towards the boy. But in amongst all the villainy, Williamson also has excellent shards of comedy shattered throughout, including references to his previous career in EastEnders and Extras, swapping Barrie for Barry, and a rendition of Taylor Swift's "Look What You Made Me Do" with new lyrics that bring the house down.
But for all the joy and wit of this number, act one opens and closes without the usual vitality and energy Canterbury audiences are accustomed to. The show's first number is somewhat restrained as it informs the audience that they're all invited to the Darlings' party and rather labours the framing of the production as a pantomime. Similarly, "Crazy Horses" never builds due to the repetitive nature of the song and ends the act rather abruptly, albeit with a flurry of fire.
And, whilst the annual pun-run, this year featuring gags relating to fruit, vegetables and herbs, is delivered with aplomb by Hook, Starkey and Smee, the latter two are deprived of any slosh, instead receiving a piece of comedy choreography on the theme of synchronised swimming, but without a drop of water in sight.
A revolving island takes the audience on their Neverland journey from Jolly Roger to Home Under the Ground, with this year's production featuring one of the highest quality sets seen on the Canterbury stage courtesy of Helga Wood and Morgan Brind. There is also an impressive use of projection for the flying sequences which David Ribi's Pan and Samantha Dorrace's Wendy bring to life so effortlessly as if soaring above the skies and seeing the world from above for the very first time.
Relocating Pan and Wendy's 'kiss' dialogue to the second act and dispensing with Wendy aiding Peter sew his shadow back on does mean there is slightly more distance between the two characters than usual as the adventure takes over any romance between the two, but Hendy's script perfectly captures the jealousy between Tinkerbell and Wendy, aided greatly by Jo Osmand's sassy interpretation of the role.
A strong ensemble help bring the musical numbers to life, with extra spectacle provided by acrobat troupe The Black Eagles effortlessly woven into proceedings as Pirates and Indians.
Boasting Nana the break-dancing dog, a Dame that does the worm and plenty of opportunities for self-professed spurious comedy routines, Peter Pan continues the Marlowe's reign as one of the best pantomimes in the country.
Reviewer: Simon Sladen