26th December 2010
For years we tried to see at least two and often three pantomimes a year. This is the first year we cut it to just the one, and given the choice of Poole, Salisbury and Bournemouth, we went for Poole.
(This bit is not about Peter Pan.) Forget the Bournemouth Pavilion panto. The kids usually go with their schools. It’s costume-heavy, soap star dominated. This year, the kids saw the Bournemouth panto in a near-empty Pavilion. The adults said the cast barely bothered to go through the motions for the matinee and it was the weakest panto they’ve ever seen. Par for the course for Bournemouth in my experience, then.
For years, we admired the ethos of Salisbury Playhouse pantomimes. No soap stars, live music, children-centred (down to a puppet intro to ease tiny fears), bum and knicker jokes, but no filthy jokes for adults only. The last few years, we did Salisbury just before Christmas, then for two years, Poole just after. We got tired of Salisbury, even if it’s the most comfortable theatre for miles around. The same routines are incorporated year after year. I can’t watch the dame cooking scene with sausages / mice / rats running up the walls again. Nor the black theatre section. Nor the monster scaring everyone until confronted with the dame who scares the monster. Traditional? Great. Well-worn routines? Fine. Identical routines? Not again.
The last two years too, our small guests enjoyed Poole more. I had my doubts. I hate a panto with a recorded soundtrack which they relied on in 2008 and 2009. The head mics were way over-prevalent. Everything was very loud, raucous and pop chart. But … there was an energy and excitement that seemed to be getting lost at Salisbury.
So this year, Poole came up with a surprise. Their first home-grown production, and with live music. To us, it was the first choice.
So then you come to Peter Pan itself. Let’s ignore my inbuilt prejudice against J.M. Barrie. If you were called Peter, and like me, had an older sister called Wendy, you would have some feeling of discomfort at the story. Is it really a pantomime? For years it was described as a Christmas entertainment for children, though we saw Bonnie Langford touring it in mid-summer. In recent years, pantomized versions (rather than the original play) have joined the traditional roster, and it’s one of the most produced. The traditional roster often has additions, usually lasting for a few years. I saw Robinson Crusoe twice as a child. It seems to have left the building. Treasure Island is one I remember with affection. Snow White ran for a decade (with its cast of seven genuine dwarves). The Queen of Hearts was a Danny la Rue special. I’ve seen Goldilocks and the Three Bears (which has an insufficient storyline to sustain a panto) and Little Red Riding Hood (ditto). The core of the pantomime repetoire consists of Cinderella, Aladdin, Dick Whittington, Jack & The Beanstalk, Babes in The Wood, Sleeping Beauty; then lesser ones, Mother Goose, Puss in Boots. Lesser because the stories are less well-known. They all have one thing in common: the pantomime dame.
Peter Pan works beautifully with the principal boy (i.e. a girl dressed up as a boy), and Captain Hook is a perfect villain. But it doesn’t have a dame. I guess you could potentially invent a cook for the Darlings who went after the children, got to Neverland, and became Ship’s Cook for the pirates BUT the point is that Neverland is a world without mothers, which is why The Lost Boys need Wendy, and why Captain Hook tries to hijack her. Actually, given Tiger Lily and the Mermaid, it’s not a world without women, but the Lost Boys and pirates don’t seem to have noticed that. And it’ would be easy to think of a funny line (You’re no woman!), given that the dame is a man dressed as a woman.Bu there’s no dame.
Logistically, the story isn’t helped as a pantomime by starting low-key in the bedroom with children getting two-thirds of the lines, then ending low-key back there. Poole did well to have a crowd scene outside the Darlings’ house in London near the start (but not right AT the start, where it should be). But they accentuated the low-key start by choosing that point to read out the audience dedications. That was extremely poor plot dynamics. On the other hand, it’s one of the few pantomimes where an early appearance of villain or even Fairy Godmother with bangs and flashes of light, didn’t cause half-a-dozen small children to burst into tears and scream “I Wanna Go Home!” That didn’t happen at all, so the low-key start can be commended.
The other intrinsic Peter Pan problem is that it requires a large number of juveniles with lines, who have to be doubled because of child labour restrictions. It means a lot of important plot points are in the hands (or rather mouths) of children. The children were great, but it’s a necessary hurdle in the story. They are next to powerful professional actors. It also requires a dog, but Dick Whittington requires a cat, and Jack & The Beanstalk a cow.
The production values were high. The flying scene took Peter Pan right over our heads, and the projected flight over London was fabulous. The wires were also less apparent than ones I saw in the past. The two leads, Debra Stephenson as Peter Pan, and Gary Turner as Captain Hook were as good a principal boy and villain as you could hope to see. They were very strong, as was Michael ‘Abs’ alom as Smee and Kate Weston as Mermaid / Mrs Darling. Gary Turner was my favourite panto villain from the last twenty I’ve seen. He had just the right degree of (apparently) unscripted asides, was fierce, but didn’t condemn adults to rush out with screaming toddlers. Debra Stephenson accentuated the return of the role of principal boy to a woman … it got lost in the 1960s as male pop stars started to take over the role. It seems to be going back.
Natalie Bush, as Wendy, had a lot of singing, and sang as well as a “pop star” would have, but if you’re casting Wendy to sing a lot, you probably should have a known “name” popular singer. Not because she’d do it any better, but because since the early 60s, that’s what pantos do with major singing roles (if they can afford it). Sinead Kenny was a sinuous Tiger Lily, and a great dancer. I don’t know how you get round the silly Red Indian language bit nowadays. It’s uncomfortable to listen to. Heap big uncomfortable, me think. I suspect that’s why Robinson Crusoe died as a panto … you can’t do a panto anymore with cannibals with bones through their noses. I would have put the Red Indians into normal English, possibly just keeping the inevitable “How!” greetings jokes.
Pantos pack out their large chorus scenes from the local dancing schools, who do it very well, and the community involvement aspect is a great positive for this production. The trouble is, when professional productions use student dancers in the adult dancer roles (rather than the kids / fill-in roles) you have to think, ‘So what is the future career path for these dancers in dancing?’ When they get to their twenties, they won’t be getting the chorus roles in pantos, because they’ll all be taken by the next generation of aspiring dancers. This is not a criticism of the dancing. The boys in particular looked professional. Pantos always used dancing schools, but they used to have a core of six or eight professionals too. I think they should. It goes with the live music. It provides professional employment.
The star feature, one of the best things I’ve seen in panto in years, were The Dingbats, a group of tumblers, playing the pirates. The acrobatic and hilarious tumbling scene at the end replaced the traditional audience singalong (to cover the costume changes for the finale). This is the normal place for the audience dedications to the Carter family from Blandford with great-granny whose 90th birthday it is today. Funny gymnastics was way better.
The traditional singalong was missed out then. I wasn’t that sorry to see it go, but the music score was bland and generic. You really do need at least two songs that everybody in the audience knows in a panto, even if there’s no singalong.
All the audience participation stuff was good, and a Boxing Day full-house adds terrific atmosphere. So (nearly) full marks to Poole Lighthouse for its first home grown panto. Even the programme was worth its £3, and that’s a rarity.