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Peter Pan (New Wimbledon Theatre).

December 16, 2015

(Seen at the afternoon performance on 12th December 2015).

When staging a panto, two elements are vital. The first is a team who are steeped in the tradition. The second is to remember that it is family entertainment – from tot to granny, teenage son to maiden aunt. As Billy Butlin’s famous sign read in every dressing room in every FAMILY holiday centre he owned, “Blue Material. Parents don’t like it, children don’t understand it, and we won’t have it – at any price.”

This year’s New Wimbledon pantomime breaks both rules, and the predictable result is this shipwreck of a production.

I’d gone with such high hopes after last year (both regular readers know that one represented my first engagement with the genre in many years). To say I came away not just bitterly disappointed, but also steamingly angry, is pretty close to the truth.

Ian Talbot is a highly experienced director, a man who ran the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre with seemingly effortless grace and produced some glorious entertainment suitable for all.

Here, interpreting Eric Potts dirty, sordid (and also largely incoherent) version of the classic J.M. Barrie tale, Talbot’s taste deserts him, and the whole crashes to the ground like a fairy surfing where she shouldn’t on her smartphone.

As Smee, the leading man required to interact constantly with us and manage proceedings, Jarred Christmas’s opening appearance bores the entire audience with some unfunny and lengthy stand-up riff about his homeland (how I wish he’d stayed). It then goes on to complain about being in panto at all – 38 days.

For the oaf’s information, he was (supposedly) here for the audience, for the unique joy of being in panto – the most prestigious in London at that; and above all for the sheer glory of being the first experience of theatre for the young, the greatest honour of all.

Selecting a victim from the audience, the entire show is kyboshed permanently with the parting line, “I think we may have got away with that on a Saturday matinee.” No, Mr Christmas, you didn’t. And nor did your later “50 Shades” line. A lack of comic timing burns one of the better jokes (about “Twitter”), and a total lack of acting ability on both his and Verne Troyer (Lofty The Pirate) parts, makes the no doubt substantial fees both command the worst joke of all. Charisma free every time the pair are on the stage (which is a lot), how I wished each of their scenes would end.

Third of the expensive “newbie” trio, Marcus Brigstocke fares rather better. Hook is a hard role, balancing terror and comedy, and he manages fairly well, with a few smart jokes and nice work with his crew – badly mis-used ‘street dance’ act “Flawless.” Shoe-horned into the script, then also given a dire “light ballet” near the end for no reason other than increase the queue for the toilets 10 minutes later when the show finally lets us escape, Brigstocke brings out the best in some dancers who can just about stand on the stage when not in professional motion.

A near silent audience for much of the afternoon were only enlivened by one (auditorium invading) panto classic, “12 Days Of Christmas.” Sadly, once more Potts foul mind polluted a lovely sequence with an entirely inappropriate (and inexplicable to the young ones) key line.

Finally, to go with the bitty and uneven narrative, the staging managed to terrify the smallest around me, and roast the adults, as gas jets blew and a loud bang began the second half. No spoiler warning, audiences need to know. Oh, and a quick extra kick to producers “Live Entertainment” for running projected advertisements for expensive toys before the show and during the interval. How many treats do they think parents can actually afford?

Lastly, Wimbledon’s sound department once again took the holidays off too, with a balance so loud in the front stalls that many song lyrics were inaudible. Given the fact most of the cast couldn’t hit the correct note with a hammer, that wasn’t always a bad thing. Chief offender Christmas should simply be “click tracked,” while some of the rest of the cast should, as Simon Cowell so often suggests, ‘sue their singing teachers.” Sharon Ballard as Mermaid is about the only cast member to escape – just a shame her work was rather redundant.

Having read this far, you may be wondering if it was all doom. No, it wasn’t (oh yes it was / no, it really wasn’t). Youngsters George Ure and Victoria Fitz-Gerald are veterans as Peter and Wendy, and it showed. Ure in particular was convincing as the boy to whom “Dying would be an awfully big adventure.” Fitz-Gerald too overcame a sub-par script with a touching gentleness and graceful movement. Notable as a dancer too was Chloe MacGregor as Tiger Lily. With considerably more acting experience and a decent script, this first-jobber has some potential.

Once past a horribly written opening scene or two, roller-skating Tinkerbell, Francesca Mills delivered the true stand-out performance of the show. Pitching her performance at the perfect anarchic panto level, where the rest of the show should have been, this Sheridan Smith lookalike was the saviour of the day in more ways than just drinking poison.

If Jarred Christmas could be made to disappear, with Ms Mills covering his role, all could yet be well. Oh, and it was rather cute seeing Ms Mills conversing with crocodile (Shane Knight) in the wings before they entered.

Last year’s “Cinderella” – proof that the author can write “clean” if he wishes – is playing at Richmond Theatre this year. If you really want to see the stars of this Wimbledon mess “in the flesh” then fair enough, but personally, I’d suggest a different venue for that seasonal treat.

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