“To die would be an awfully big adventure,” muses Peter Pan, uttering one of the most famous lines in J.M. Barrie’s story.
“Don’t talk daft!” comes the abrupt Lancastrian rebuke from Christina’s Meehan’s mermaid princess. Quite right, too!
The Blackpool Grand is a quite beautiful Victorian theatre and, if you spot anything in its season schedule you even half fancy, I recommend you buy a ticket and get along.
This year’s pantomime is, as you might expect, a traditional offering (too traditional for some tastes; though it could be argued, this is Blackpool, not Manchester or London).
Director, Anthony Williams, will have his work cut out in the next few days; not because there’s anything fundamentally wrong with the production, more because the show is running 30 to 45 minutes too long (although, to be fair, as 10pm loomed, it was the adults in the crowd, not the children, who seemed to be flagging).
Once it tightens up – as it will, given time to bed-in and with a few well-judged edits – UK Productions’s Peter Pan is sure of a happy run in its ornately decorated setting. The principles all put in an honest shift, and there are some nice touches – Tinkerbell on skates, Peter soaring off into the gods, rather than just hovering above the stage.
The excellent professional dancers are ably supported by young apprentices. The little girls are graceful, co-ordinated and impressively synchronised. The Lost Boys’ dancing is rather more laid back when it comes to form and timing, but I guess that’s what comes of not having a mother?
It would be nice, in 2019, to encounter an adaptation that finds some way to challenge the assumptions of the original. Could there be more to Wendy than her nascent maternal instincts (even her father seems to value her mostly for being ‘beautiful’)? This side of the Atlantic we may feel less concerned about cartoonish representations of ‘red indians’, but there is an opportunity for rethinking such tropes. I know, I know, next thing I’ll be ranting about the Darling children being ‘privileged posh kids with First World problems’… I’ll leave it there.
Time was, if you needed help with a little job – trimming your hedge or getting your granny safely across a busy road – you could turn to a boy scout. Happily, those days are not quite lost to the past. The scouts’ dinky female counterparts, the brownies, unintentionally come to the rescue of this long-in-the-tooth reviewer. Having warmed-up pre-show by singing along to Wham’s “Last Christmas”, the brownie “choir” (in the rows behind me) save me any confusion between songs that have been mega hits and songs specially written for the production. Not only do they know the famous ones, they know all the words and they sing along with gusto. Just so you’re in no doubt, this is not a complaint. Pantomime is an audition participation art form, and the brownies are out to participate to the max!
As Smee, Grand veteran, Steve Royle, carries the main burden of the production – a quipping compere whose job is to overload children an adults with corny (and often risqué) gags.
“Some of these are for a select group in the audience,” he confesses with a twinkle. Bums, burps and fart jokes are packed in, alongside innuendo and impressively “dreadful” puns. Royle does a great job, but could be a mite gentler on some of the littles in the audience (small children can be very sensitive, especially when they don’t know why hundreds of people are laughing at them).
Alongside Royle’s Smee, former Emmerdale star, Tom Lister has a ball as Captain Hook (doubling, by tradition, as Mr Darling), although he could perhaps stir a little more cheesy ham into the villainous recipe without becoming too scary. Lister and Royle clearly love the chance to release their inner Brian May and Freddie Mercury (the Queen repertoire – and there’s a lot of it – I don’t need the Brownie Choir’s help with).
Some reckon that the secret of a good panto script is like the secret of a good bridal outfit – something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue. The grandparents in the crowd might recognise a nifty recycling of Abbott and Costello’s “Hu’s on first base” routine.
Ruth Betteridge’s Wendy has a solid, dependable charm, and Jack Heasman’s Peter is daring and athletic. Having flown all the way to the gods, Peter almost misses his finale, due to a hoist malfunction (thank goodness the techies take no chance – I really don’t want to be reporting on PP’s Icharus moment!). Hats off to the singing, dancing and skating Tinkerbell (Rachel Grundy) – she gives a rather lovely rendition of what I have since learned is Lewis Capaldi’s song, “Someone You Loved” (ably supported all the way, by her unofficial backing group: the Brownie Choir).
A long night, in which the parents have a bit of fun and the children seem to have a lot of it. What more can you ask of a panto?
As well as Tie-Your-Granny-in-a-Knot badges, I wonder if Brownies can win a Panto Participation Patch? I’ll leave that one with you, Brown Owl.★ ★ ★ ★
Peter Pan is at The Grand Theatre, Blackpool from 10 December 2019 to 5 January 2020.