Sunday 9th December 2018 at Nottingham Theatre Royal.
When Nottingham Theatre Royal do panto, they really go for it. Their production of Peter Pan shoots for the stars and manages to deliver something very West End in nature. Production values are brilliant all round and a wonderful cast tell a classic story with boundless energy and knee-slapping joy. What really sets this panto apart in terms of offering up something new and exciting is its use of special effects. In a world where we’re all competing with techno amazement for the attention of the young folk in our lives, this ‘High-Flying 3D Pantomime Adventure’ is super whizzy and contemporary with flashing lights, smoke, pyrotechnics and some impressive 3D action. Take that Fortnite!
Visuals in this production are truly fantastic. All the colour and sparkle of traditional pantos remain intact but this production sets its sights on 2018 techno trends. Visual Special Effects from The Twins FX has the audience in 3D glasses for an impressive section in Act 2 (a little on the scary side for very young children, but impressive nonetheless).
David Howe’s Lighting design keeps us on our toes with flashing lights and an array of variations which make each segue painless and pacy. I’m not sure who is responsible for the giant crocodile but he is deserving of mention as in truth, he’s my favourite part of the whole production and thanks to whoever crafted him and Howe’s brilliant lighting, the croc’s scene is a triumphant highlight.
The script is an adaptation of J.M.Barrie’s beautiful story by Alan McHugh (with ‘additional material by Joe Pasquale’ which I presume translates as Pasquale is free to improvise in his own special way in each performance). The tale begins familiarly with Pan meeting Wendy and heading off to Neverland with the boys and Tink. It’s significantly chopped and changed after that, with Smee more central than Pan and with Smee and Starkey spying for Pan rather than being true to Hook. The final triumph remains though and it’s a happy ending to send us all home with!
Casting gets it very right with Jack McNeill as Peter Pan. McNeill is boyish and instantly likeable. He has the twinkle Barrie writes about and captures the agile youth of the character wonderfully – if I’m completely honest, I would have loved to see McNeill really take the helm and steer this production as a great Peter Pan can rather than have him play second fiddle to the elevated Smee.
Lucy Evans is also brilliantly cast. As Tinker Bell, she’s a fine balance between mischievous sprite, sparkly fairy and petulant child. Tiger Lily’s role is clipped significantly but Rory Furey-King makes her time count, leading an energetic performance of Come Alive from The Greatest Showman and generally channeling the determined Disney protagonist type.
I saw Rosie O’Hare earlier this year giving a phenomenal performance in Hairspray so I was thrilled to spot her being cast as Wendy here. Surprisingly, O’Hare’s role is minimal as so much time is given over to other and new elements to the plot. Still, O’Hare gets to showcase her pipes in a few brilliant duets with McNeill, giving the production some real West End musical flair as they croon their way through their narrative snippets.
John Challis is a great Captain Hook, stern-faced and upright with a forceful growl and a child-friendly sneer. Additional crew member Starkey makes a welcome, measured comic contribution in the form of Paul Gabriel who gives a master class in how to recapture balance when sharing scenes with manic comedians running riot without reins.
Director and Choreographer Jonny Bowles has the ensemble and ‘The Theatre Royal Babes’ impressing with incredibly sharp dance numbers which clearly place the production firmly in West End territory. They look the part in their ornate costumes, they dance the part in perfect unison and they act the part with fierce or fun performances to suit any given moment, making them a delightful contribution to the production throughout.
Yet even while every design and performance is excellent, there are some key flaws. Joe Pasquale for one. I know he’s a big name and a respected seasoned performer but there’s no way around it: he undermined the production far more than he carried it here. He most definitely has impressive energy but someone really should have a kind word with him about this being 2018 and even under the protection of panto traditions, he needs to cut some of his oldest go-to quips.
The content of Pasquale’s ad-libbing is dodgy territory. The out-dated Schtick from the eighties paints him as your slightly awkward uncle who hasn’t picked up a newspaper in a good few years and has lost all sense of what’s appropriate and what isn’t. Panto has always had a bawdy undertone especially for the grown-ups, but Pasquale’s act is so overt that it’s surely impossible for it to bypass anyone.
He also steals almost every scene and mostly in ways which neglect younger cast members who rarely get a look-in. He’s almost constantly on stage, often interfering with scenes and generally making this more of the Smee than the Peter Pan show, but he clearly earns his place as star billing. If the production were re-packaged as the Smee Show, the generous time given over to Pasquale would seem more fitting, but to say this is Peter Pan, Pan himself very much takes a back seat along with the rest of the cast…
This is undoubtedly an impressive show with so much on offer to win over youngsters. It’s thrilling and full and fitted with lots of snazzy bells and whistles to cater to current tastes. It’s an incredibly ambitious show which pulls it all off in highly polished fashion, complete with a lively, likeable and talented cast at its centre. It’s so very nearly a five star triumph, but with Pasquale allowed to monopolise the whole production as he does, it would take chopping his air time down by around 60% to allow the production and the rest of the cast to really shine as they so clearly can. If you’re a fan of Pasquale, you’ll love this. For me though, this is an exceptional show demonstrating a real dedication to moving with the times which clashes loudly with the dated faux pas contributions of its star attraction.
Peter Pan plays at Nottingham Theatre Royal until January 13th 2019and you can find tickets here.