By BRUCE DENNILL
A return to well-known source material – Janice Honeyman directed different versions of a Peter Pan pantomime in 2007 and 2014 – this latest re-imagining uses much that is new to give the classic story a look and feel that lands with an audience of a new generation, looking for new cultural cues in their entertainment.
The sets are once again supported by large screens with bright, complex projections and animations by Andrew Timm and Adino Poggiali-Trapani, which, when combined with the Mandela Theatre stage and its various conformations, allows for a number of different large-scale locales to be convincingly created in which the cast can sing and act. The cast is fresh, too. Leads Sandi Dlangalala (Peter Pan) and Virtuous Kandemiri (Tinkerbell) take part in their first Honeyman pantomime and carry the weight of expectation with almost casual ease, with Kandemiri in particular using her character’s in-your-face sassiness to make a notable mark as a performer to watch going forward. In the pit, musical director Dale Ray also represents young but already hugely experienced talent, responsible for a different and crucial aspect of the production.
Familiar panto performers Kiruna-Lind Devar (Wendy Darling), Ben Voss (Captain Hook) and David Arnold Johnson (Clementina Coconut) set the bar in terms of the genre’s expected foibles. Voss, as ever, is brilliant at engaging with the audience (including memorably bellowing at a toddler encouraged by its parent to boo at him: “Oh, shut up! What are you – three years old?” *Note – both parent and child took that in the spirit and context in which it was offered, giggling as they were scolded) and Johnson, no stranger to camping it up as a dame, gives arguably his best performance as the feisty but somewhat wistful nanny to the Darling children. Michael Richard’s Smee is a gentle, relatable narrator, giving the show much of its heart and structure.
The multiple sponsorships that allow the pantomime to revel in its scale and the richness of its wardrobe (points to designer Mariska Meyer) mean the usual product placements, and putting a bunch of them together in one scene here only partly mitigates the interruption of the flow of the story the advertising always causes. It’s part of the tradition and it’s a wonderful way to show corporations the value of theatre in terms they understand, but a brand as a punchline remains a hard sell to some. There are also some pacing issues, where the tricky task of simultaneously juggling all of the story threads and trying to reach all of the components of the audience – adults and kids of different ages, with all of the different reference points those different cohorts have – sometimes including an allusion or a joke that gets missed by one or more groups. The same is true of the soundtrack, which relies heavily on this year’s youth radio or targeted streaming stars, many of whom are unfamiliar to folks who type “classic rock”, “gospel”, “maskandi” or “house” into the search bars of Spotify or Apple Music when they have a gap to unwind. That said, pretty much every teenager in the room for the opening performance of Peter Pan was grooving and mouthing each line of the lyrics as the well-drilled cast completed tight massed choreography, and that sort of energy is contagious even if you are an old fuddy-duddy.
Ultimately, the panto provides a bright, loud, cheerful space in which to gather as families and as a larger theatre- and music-loving community, and in that regard, it is again a success. Everything is amplified, from colour schemes to villainy, making suspension of disbelief and an indulgence in escapism an easy, enjoyable choice for a few hours.