Peter Pan at the Orchard Theatre, Darford ****

Peter Pan always makes for a slightly different sort of panto, the story coming from J.M. Barrie’s stage play and requiring some fairly heavy lifting to turn it into the ‘he’s behind you’ kind of entertainment we expect.

Unlike last year’s Aladdin, which dealt with the plot as almost an afterthought, here the story telling is definitely to the fore. And at the start it moves at quite a pace. No sooner has the show started than Peter Pan himself is flying in and taking the Darling children off to Neverland. There’s not even time to have Wendy sew his shadow on or to meet her parents – so we don’t get the usual trick of the same actor playing Mr Darling and Captain Hook.

In this case our villain is the star attraction in the shape of Steve McFadden, (Eastenders’ Phil Mitchell) who does a fine job, swaggering about the stage in admirable fashion and really giving the character some presence. With no pantomime dame in Peter Pan, the comedy all falls to one person, in this case Andy Ford as Smee. I felt he was slightly at a disadvantage in the plot-heavy first half because the audience had not had enough chance to warm up to the comic tone he was injecting. Sure the jokes were mainly tried and tested panto fodder, but he is a skilled performer and they deserved bigger laughs. Perhaps a comedy set-piece earlier on would have helped. In the second part, though, we spend a lot of the plot waiting for Peter Pan to come and rescue the children from Hook’s Jolly Roger. Quite why he’s taking so long to get there is not clear, but it leaves much more breathing space for Andy Ford and he’s in his element with many opportunities to shine.

John and Michael Darling were great, kept in line by big sister Wendy, convincingly played by Jess Pritchard. Isobel Hathaway was charming on roller skates as Tinker Bell and Tania Newton had great impact as Mimi the Magical Mermaid. Keisha Atwell was delightful and full of smiles as Tiger Lily and Joe Sleight was sprightly and believable in the title role. I must also mention the ensemble who were carefully directed to be always moving, gently creating interesting shapes whenever they were in the background. A nice touch from director and choreographer Barbara Evans.

The stand-out theatrical moment is the arrival of the crocodile. Meanwhile the whole thing came to life thanks to the efforts of the fully rounded sound from the three piece band in the pit – so much better than relying only on a pre-recorded track. Great music and song choices, too.

Overall the tone of the show is very family friendly. There are, of course, a few ‘over the head’ moments for the grown-ups, but what you get here is great story telling for children and a properly theatrical experience which should get them back for more.


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