J M Barrie, adapted by Eric Potts
There's no getting away from it: Peter Pan does not really lend itself to pantomime. It's a great kids' story and makes an excellent play, with or without music, but it simply does not suit the panto style. I've thought this for years and I'm afraid First Family Entertainment's production at Sunderland Empire confirms it.
Eric Potts' show starts with a big panto number with full all-dancing, all-singing chorus but then we go into a long scene of exposition in the Darling children's nursery which, although it sticks very closely to the Barrie original, loses the panto atmosphere, in spite of the panto Dog (Nana), Nurse Nora (the Dame) and the efforts of Wendy and Peter to involve the audience.
After a rather too long flying scene above the rooftops of London we eventually reach Never Land and return to the panto and stay with it until, toweards the end, we end up back in the nursery with Wendy, John, Michael and all the Lost Boys, after which we go back to the panto with a revival of the not often seen nowadays welcoming on stage of some children from the audience (and some of the jokes that have always gone with it: "You're six? Are you married?"), followed by... no, not a walkdown, because there's no marriage or other celebration, but a reprise of the first act closer. Good song - "Rocking All Over the World" - and a colourful scene, but it is a reprise, not the big glitzy ending - and no new glitzy costumes either.
We have a Dame (Steve Luck's Nurse Nora) and a comic (Steve Walls' Smee), and, of course, the villainous Captain Hook (John Challis), which means that we can also have some of the traditional panto gags (the pirates and Nora drilling under the command of Hook, for example) but they sit uneasily alongside the story to which they are an obvious add-on. Writer Eric Potts even tries to include a variation on the traditional take-off scene so the kids can yell, "It's behind you!", but it's just the crocodile behind Captain Hook so it's over and done with in seconds, without the increasingly hysterical yelling and screaming that the true take-off engenders. If truth be told, it fell a little flat.
No good fairy either. Not that Tinker Bell really suits the part if we are to follow Barrie as closely as Potts does. Here, as in the story, she is a point of light - or rather a soft-edged follow-spot, accompanied by appropriate sounds - which did confuse many of the children in the audience who were probably expecting something more in the Disney vein.
You can't fault the energy and commitment of a largely young and, in panto terms, fairly inexperienced cast, nor the quality of the sets, costumes and lighting. I was particularly taken by Keeran Rose Greener's Wendy and Walls is a terrific panto comic (loved his Tiger Woods joke: "Sorry Tiger can't come to the phone. He's playing a round"). And, of course, Challis is a very villainous villain, the sort everyone loves to hate. But the script really does need tightening up, especially in the nursery scenes.
The audience enjoyed it but there was not that excited buzz at the end which is the sign of a really top class panto nor the cheers which extend the curtain call beyond what has been rehearsed.
Reviewer: Peter Lathan