Last time I was at the Grand Opera House, Frank Carson was on stage and I was still at primary school. Thirty five or so years later I returned this week to see Peter Pan in the Great Victoria Street theatre whose restored exterior has recently been revealed with the removal of its scaffolding. Look out for the newly gold-leafed statue of Mercury tooting out from the front corner.
On stage, you’ll be met by an equally glittering set and lighting design for this year’s Christmas crowd pleaser. Peter Pan (Mikey Jay-Heath) flies in through the window into the children’s bedroom. Tinker Bell (‘Tink’ to her few friends, and played by Hollie O’Donoghue) eschews aerial manoeuvres and instead roller-skates her way through the show, displaying the mean, grudge-carrying, raspberry-blowing side of her fairy personality. Her love rival is Wendy (Kweeva Garvey) who endures snide remarks, looks after the children from the McMaster Stage School, and comes to terms with Peter Pan’s lack of suitability as a life partner.
Qdos Entertainment pantomimes come with big sets. The big nursery set – which alone would be extravagant for the duration of many a two act play on a Belfast stage – cleverly folds away almost to nothing and soon we’re in Neverland, before bouncing to the Jolly Roger pirate ship, underwater and back home. It’s in Neverland that we meet the big-voiced Tiger Lily (Natalie Winsor) whose wardrobe displays a Native American/Amazonian tribe crossover sense of swimsuit fashion.
Every pantomime needs a baddie, yet David Bedella’s Captain Hook strangely charms his way into the audience’s hearts with his strong acting, sense of timing and deep bass voice. Also on board the Jolly Roger we meet the cook May Smee (May McFettridge/John Linehan), her husband Smee (Paddy Jenkins) and ship’s entertainer Starkey (Paul Burling). And to complete the set of nine principals, there’s Mimi the magical Mermaid, played by former ‘Bad Girl’ and soap star Claire King.
With live music, pyrotechnics, an animatronic crocodile which sadly only appeared once, enough costume changes to make the wardrobe team weep, a good dose of innuendo for the parents (and teens) to giggle at, and a projected 3D sequence that had the kids screaming well into the next scene with excitement and terror, this is a big production. And on top of that there’s an ensemble of eight to add to the all singing, all dancing feel of this pantomime (with what feels like a tribute to The Wiggles’ Captain Feathersword at one point).
Yet the balance of Peter Pan – the production rather than the wire-tastic actor – feels wrong. Alan McHugh and Jonathan Kiley could trim at least two principals from their script and prevent a queue of stars building up on stage waiting for their moment to step out and do a ‘turn’ rather than a tighter team driving forward the somewhat-ignored plot.
Paul Burling’s imitation routines are merry and entertaining. Despite being the long-running (28 years) and top-billed dame and delivering an impressive chunk of lines in Irish at one point, May McFettridge was less fluent in her ad libbed sections than I remember from previous gigs where she has appeared, and seemed fixated on the first three or four rows of the audience (perhaps an effect of the bright lights and it being press night). That said, her appearance as Wonder Woman was unforgettable and her bosom buddies got the laughs they deserved in the second half. Claire King was buoyant in her interactions with the theatre goers, but didn’t quite generate the warm response that her effort merited.
David Bedella’s early rendition of Blondie’s One Way Or Another sets him apart from much of the rest of the cast early on in the show. Mike Jay-Heath and Kweeva Garvey have mastered their aerial manoeuvres and sing as if flying was the most natural thing in the world an deserve more time on stage.
“Oh yes we can! Oh no we can’t! … It’s like the Brexit debate all over again!”
While slapstick and puns remain, a lot of panto tropes are sparsely used in this darker than expected production. There’s only one “he’s behind you” and it seems as if actual jokes and skilled sword play have replaced some of the worn thin elements of traditional pantomime. Though teenagers (amongst the most tuned-in and politically correct citizens at large) may also suggest that a gorilla sodomising an actor in drag could also be dropped in the future.
With its jaw-dropping crocodile, death, resurrection, and some key change-tastic music, the Dale Farm sponsored Peter Pan is in the Grand Opera House, Belfast until 14 January, playing up to 12 shows a week.
Photo credit: McCracken Photography