JM Barrie’s Peter Pan has undergone several changes on its way to becoming a regular part of the pantomime canon. A dame will sometimes pop up as Mrs Smee, the mermaid becomes the most ambulant of sea creatures and, perhaps most understandably, the play’s darker moments have been smoothed over to suit a light entertainment audience.
Michael Harrison’s lavish production at the Birmingham Hippodrome has moments of surreal delight but, save for a few phrases, it bears little resemblance to the original story.
Change can be a good thing and there’s much to admire here, whether it’s Meera Syal with a chorus of tap-dancing crocodiles or Jimmy Osmond belting out a chorus of Crazy Pirates to the tune of Crazy Horses to introduce his crew.
Alan McHugh’s book has dispensed with the nursery opening in favour of a Mary Poppins-style chorus of sweeps on the rooftop and a creaky device to introduce Matt Slack’s Smee, long before anyone gets to Neverland.
Slack is a virtually indispensable ingredient of the Birmingham Hippodrome pantomime and this is his sixth year as its frontline comedian. His quick-fire comedy constantly steps outside the story and his rapport with the audience is exceptional. There is no dame in sight and, while Slack provides all the usual diversions, there’s an imbalance here. In particular Syal, one of several big names debuting in Qdos Entertainment pantomimes this year, is woefully underused.
There is a preponderance of circus acts, including The Timbuktu Tumblers and Sascha Williams and Stephanie Nock as the Drunken Pirates. These are talented, agile performers, but their acts have been included mainly to fill time rather than drive the plot. While they chime well with The Greatest Showman soundtrack, which echoes incessantly throughout the show, the acrobatics are fairly standard.
Jaymi Hensley’s chirpy Peter and Cassie Compton’s Wendy get a little fly time, but it’s perfunctory rather than magical. McHugh’s script barely allows the young couple to engage, so it’s difficult to discern whether or not there is a good chemistry between them. The best we get is a lively quartet of Rewrite the Stars, along with Kellie Gnauck as Tinker Bell and Imogen Brooke as Tiger Lily.
Osmond is an acceptable villain and boasts a strong rock voice, but despite his evident enthusiasm, the script doesn’t let him take flight in the role. He is also battling Slack, no slouch in the scene-stealing department.
Harrison’s direction has pace, but this Peter Pan is so fragmented that any vestiges of story are lost in a cacophony of production numbers, comedy and circus acts. It may be entertaining in places, but it lacks much of the magic that made Barrie’s characters so engaging in the first place.