The Wolverhampton Panto always prides itself on being big, brash and spectacular …and this year’s Peter Pan certainly fulfils that ambition. There is much to admire in the lavish settings, the scanty costumes and the raunchy choreography. The entry of the stage-filling Jolly Roger pirate ship with its entourage of athletic, vaulting shipmates (of both genders) is an early jaw dropper. But, at the final curtain, I had the overwhelming feeling that I’d just been hit over the head by a blunt instrument. With the notable exception of The Chuckle Brothers (who I will shortly praise to the crow’s nest) subtlety, finesse and innocence were in short supply and the awful sound system made everyone sound horribly nasal.
My main worry is that the Qdos conglomerate seems to have lost sight of the true tradition of pantomime. So many vital elements are missing from Alan McHugh’s slicing of the story. There’s no Dame. Peter never finds his shadow and Wendy, John and Michael are sadly sidelined. Worse; Mr and Mrs Darling don’t appear at all. So there’s no emotive back-story of how Peter Pan used to appear to Mother when she was a girl. Nor do we get the lovely tradition of Mr Darling playing Captain Hook and Mrs Darling doubling as Tiger Lily … which J M Barrie relied upon to give his young audience a comfortable context in which to watch the adventure. Instead we cut straight to the high flying …because that’s the spectacular bit.
So thank goodness for Paul and Barry Elliott (The Chuckle Brothers) who clearly have panto deep in their soul and pay the art form complete respect. Their style is perfect and personal, their timing immaculate and their complicity with the audience is an utter joy. Unlike the rest of the players, they perform with us, not at us.
Many of their routines date right back to the era of The Music Hall and The Crazy Gang and are a treat to see in action again. Whilst other characters allude to East Enders, they stage a neat variation of the old black white TV ‘Yes/No interlude’; they have great fun with a long green cucumber and a sharp cutlass, and perform an excellent rendition of Eric Sykes famous ‘plank’ routine. I was laughing like a 5-year-old … just as I did in the 50s. And it was wonderful to see today’s 5-year-old laughing with me.
The plank was rubber by the way – which is a pity because it’s robbed me of the joke that John Altman’s Captain Hook was as wooden as his pirate plank. His lines were rushed and unvaried, he barely exerted himself, and Taylor Swift should sue for damages to her song.
His one masterstroke, however, was to pull the wings off Fairy Tinkerbell’s back; which gave Lucy Evans every opportunity to create an entertainingly petulant, Tom Boy fairy, who might easily have stepped out of ‘Little Britain’. She was the real dynamo of the show and a delight for the Dads too.
In fact she was responsible for the best gag of the night, which emanated not from the stage but the back of the dress circle. The audience was invited to partake in the “Do You Believe in Fairies” chorus to make Tinkerbell appear. And when she did; a loud, gruff, very alpha-male voice from the back row called out “Now I believe!!!”; leaving the stalls and the Gods wondering why the rest of us were all falling about laughing. It was funnier than anything else.
What’s also funny is how the low budget shows I’ve seen this Christmas have been the pick of the crop.
Qdos and The Grand will doubtless make a healthy profit from Peter Pan and J M Barrie would be consoled by the statutory donation to Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital. But he might prefer to be on a desert island than Lichfield Street this Christmas.
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