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Peter Pan

Written by J.M. Barrie, adapted by Michael Harrison
Qdos Pantomimes
Civic Theatre, Darlington
(2010)

Peter: Pan publicity photo of David Essex

Although Peter Pan has never been one of my favourite pantomimes, I have to admit that Michael Harrison has penned the best adaptation I have ever seen. His decision to reduce the scenes in the Darling family's London home, at the beginning of the story, which can often seem long and drawn-out, is spot-on and means that the action can swiftly transfer to the magical Neverland. Some fantastic sets really help evoke a feeling of this enchanted land and, in terms of design, no expense seems to have been spared.

For the second season in succession, Robin Colvill and Graham Walker (two members of the one-time five-strong comedy group, The Grumbleweeds) return to the Civic. This time they are the daft duo, Starkey and Smee, who are shipmates aboard Captain Hook's Jolly Roger. Once again, they delight the audience with their inimitable brand of comedy, music and impressions - ranging from Lady Gaga to Susan Boyle! Throughout the performance, the pair seemed to be having just as much fun as the audience.

Former pop heart-throb David Essex takes on the role of Captain Hook - a notoriously difficult role to crack. I have seen several actors make a complete hash of this part (including Leslie Grantham and John Challis), whilst others (such as Brian Blessed and Ade Edmondson) have triumphed in it. Part of the problem is that Hook has no redeeming qualities and therefore elicits no sympathy from the audience. As wicked as the evil Queen in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs may be, at least you can connect with the ageing beauty who is being usurped by a younger model, threatening to oust her from a position of power and social superiority - and, at the end of the story, she is often shown as remorseful. Hook, however, is not given a plausible motive for his dastardly deeds and is not 'cured' of his villainy by curtain-fall.

Although it would be unfair to compare Essex to the larger-than-life Brian Blessed, I felt that his performance in the role was rather lacklustre. It took him far too long to warm-up, lose his inhibitions and get into character - and the re-worked version of his own track 'Dangerous' fell flat. He only really seemed to become animated in the sword fight with Peter Pan.

If Essex's performance as Hook is best described as 'understated', then Susan Hallam-Wright's as Peter Pan can only be termed 'over-zealous'. Visually, Hallam-Wright looked the part, reminding me of predecessors including Bonnie Langford and Anita Harris with her elfin-like appearance and mannerisms, but there were times when her smile seemed 'painted on' and a little disconcerting.

Sasi Strallen, as Tiger Lily, was more Indian Squawk than Squaw and her incessant nasal vocals became somewhat irritating very early into her performance. On the plus side, though, Louise Lenihan was a suitably naughty, roller-skating Tinkerbell, her appearance, voice and mannerisms reminiscent of a young Barbara Windsor, whilst Daisy Wood-Davis perfectly suited the role of Wendy.

Technically, there were some impressive moments in the show but none that actually drew gasps of breath from the audience. And, unfortunately, on two separate occasions I noticed backstage crew on the stage - once to facilitate a change of scene and then to fasten Peter and Wendy into harnesses for a flying scene. Tut tut!

This production sees Qdos present its twenty-fifth pantomime at Darlington Civic and it should have been an anniversary to be celebrated. However, the opportunity has been missed, somewhat, by a combination of sloppy direction and a lazy performance by the leading man, resulting in a show that was only given a 'silver' lining by the hard-working performers in what were, technically, supporting roles.

Runs until Sunday16 January 2011

Reviewer: Steve Burbridge