This years Hippodrome Panto from the panto masters Crossroads is Peter Pan, but make no mistake, this is not the usual Pan story. This high-flying festival takes us back to Neverland long after Pan’s last battle with Captain Hook, as Wendy Darling is on a mercy mission to help Peter rediscover his ability to fly. Aided by Tinkerbell, Wendy and the Lost Boys must restore the pixie dust waterfall and bring happiness back to Neverland.
Star billing goes to the amazing Christopher Biggins, back at Darlington Panto for the 1st time in over 40 years, and showing all the presence and poise that has made him the best loved dame in Pantoland. From his first step from the wings, Biggins oozes charisma. It is often a sign of greatness that someone can elicit maximum impact from the smallest of gestures; a timely raise of an eyebrow, an impeccable extra beat pause and of course a cheeky smile and a twinkling eye. Biggins deploys all these in full force and simply owns the stage whenever he appears. Likewise, when he engages with a few younger members of the audience he is caring and considerate but still masterful of ensuring the whole audience join in with the fun.
Another stalwart of panto, and one who has made the trip south from the Theatre Royal is Steve Arnott. Look up ‘Panto Villain’ in the dictionary and it will simply be a picture of a snarling Steve in full Hook costume. Avoiding any attempt to soften the villain (as has been seen in recent pantos), this Captain Hook is dangerous, duplicitous, double-crossing, dirty-tricking and delightfully dark and doesn’t deal a damn. Backed by his crew of Acromaniacs and their brilliantly funny vault routines, Hook sets out to capture the last of the pixie dust and thus render any hope of restoring Pans ability to fly a failure before it begins.
Peter (James Hameed) and Wendy (Sheri Lineham) are a great double act comfortably leading song and dance routines and equally happy on the high wires. Likewise Tegan Bannister as Tinkerbell who stays true to the fairy roots of the role. Sadly the same couldn’t be said for comedian Rikki Jay as Smee, or the returning Peter Peverley as Starkey. Whether is was the writing or the delivery, often their roles seemed to border on smutty toilet humour, not the clever disguised double entendres often deployed by pantos to engage both kids and adults with the same lines. When jokes are told and ALL you can hear are adult laughs then surely a mark has been missed somewhere for a family panto and having seen most of the current offerings in the region, there are better ways to bring jokes to the stage.
Director Michael Vivian has attempted to deliver a traditional panto with a new story which on the whole works. Perhaps more could have been made of Tink’s impending demise before very quickly restoring her powers (and thus minimising the feeling in the audience that they had helped contribute). Likewise, the impressive Kraken only made a very brief appearance and was not seen again. As mentioned, apart from a funny song routine, the belly laughs were few & far between and on leaving the theatre there were no shortage of parents having some delicate conversations with their young children around more than a few jokes.
Special mention to a brilliant show programme by John Good Limited, packed with games and fun things to keep young minds interested while they wait, or too relive their panto trip on the way home.
As a Post Script - if you are taking small children it might be worth also taking a cushion for each of them especially if you are in the stalls - there are no children's booster seats at Darlington Hippodrome so many had to either stand or sit on someone's knee.