Peter Pan

Paul Ferguson
BlueGenie
Whitley Bay Playhouse

Mark Little, Sarah-Jane Honeywell and Steve Walls

Peter Pan has few of the traditional panto ingredients. There are no ugly sisters, no dame, no anthropomorphic animals. There’s the eponymous hero who refuses to grow up, choosing to spends his life with a tribe of Lost Boys ignorant of the existence of mothers (or indeed females of any kind). Pick ‘n’ mix your own Freudian symbolism.

None of which mattered a jot to the large and animated audience at Whitley Bay Playhouse. The youngsters shouted, sang, waved their bright laser sticks and didn’t bother overmuch that the show runs for almost three hours.

The BlueGenie production deserves its self-description of ‘lavish’. This is the company’s fourth successive panto production here, they’re already booked for 2014 and the continuity seems to be paying off.

Smart technology sees Pan et al impressively flying over London rooftops, but technology is never over-indulged. The sets (uncredited) are eye-catching—I’ve seen more than my fair share of tacky panto sets in the past—and Luke Woods’s lighting often bathes us in beautiful colours. Simon Barnard’s musical arrangements have us foot-tapping throughout.

The panto form demands a good smattering of the tried and tested, so this show, written and directed by Paul Ferguson, highlights the knockabout humour between Mark Little’s Capt Hook and his side-kick, Steve Walls’s Smee. Inevitably this pushes more to the background the Pan / Wendy relationship or the other complexities of the original. As for the poor old crocodile, it’s low-profile, only briefly heard (but never seen) and does its devouring offstage.

Few complaints though. Both Little and Walls are past-masters at their art and develop a real rapport with their young audience, lobbing in the occasional comic titbit for we adults. Sarah-Jane Honeywell is Pan with Charlotte Chinn as Wendy, both good actors but their territory here is limited.

One feature is the remarkable and talented work-rate of the support youngsters from the Hazel Rayson Dancers, plus the Tyne Theatre Stage School and Kathryn Davis Stage School. Economy no doubt plays a part in including such a large number of young people, but these are smart cookies, turning in finely tuned hi-powered choreography which never seems to crowd the stage (Alison Hefferon is choreographer).

They dance and sing as pirates, Indians (native Americans?), mermaids and Lost Boys, often with lightning quick costume changes, and the stage school youngsters are much more than extras, shouldering a fair part of the acting. Spot the future star—various options.

The main leads are all fairly well-known in their field without, thank heavens, that distorting sense of being a big ‘celeb’ which can turn panto into a PR vehicle.

Audience participation and involvement is key, and there’s no shortage. But when Steve Walls announces special birthdays, groups etc we need the house lights up if we’re to see the exuberant waving of those named and to feel a required sense of sharing.

Hook’s sense of melodramatic evil is tempered by his clowning, which can rebound. When he turned and cold-bloodedly ran through a pirate with his sword I felt the young audience were a mite confused and disturbed. Or was it just me?

Traditionally the same actor plays Hook and Mr Darling. As they do here—I think—though the latter appears only briefly at the play’s start (usually the Darling trio return home at the finale) and for some reason is uncredited in the cast list.

The show is good fun, pacey, full of energy and commitment and the audience never feels short-changed. Just right for an austerity Christmas.

Reviewer: Peter Mortimer