Neverland is meant to be a place where the imagination can run free, unbridled. But that’s not the case here. The New Wimbledon panto – a Family First production scripted by Eric Potts – features a comedy pirate played by Verne Troyer, who played Mini Me in the Austin Powers movies, who here sings and dances whilst the audience look on and laugh. It feels deeply uncomfortable, with a dash of the freak show to it. The chief source of entertainment in this white-washed land is a troupe of black dancers – Britain’s Got Talent finalists Flawless – and the way in which they’re presented is also very uncomfortable. The women are reduced to either sexy damsels in distress (Tiger Lily), or mother figures (Wendy) and the jokes are frequently faintly homophobic while the stock characters rely on outdated camp and Latino stereotypes. What is this teaching children?
In short, this production of Peter Pan is archaic; it’s stuck in the dark ages. Though it adheres to some traditions and tropes of pantomime, the show also attempts a twenty-first century update. Here, the clash of old and new is a clunky juxtaposition. There’s no panto dame and no slop scene, whilst the songs come too few and far between and are far from up-to-date. A neon dance sequences come later on and is given a futuristic (if unpolished) twist by Flawless and their light-up suits, but it’s we’re given this at the expense of an old fashioned audience sing-along. The only moment of anarchic silliness in the whole thing comes via a slightly saucy rendition of The Twelve Days of Christmas that’s a welcome entertaining diversion.
It’s often the celebrity casting that draws in the crowds when it comes to pantomime, but here even on this level it disappoints. Verne Troyer’s unnecessary Lofty The Pirate is used as little more than a cheap joke that leaves a bad taste in the mouth. Marcus Brigstocke is simply not a villainous enough Captain Hook, lacking any real stage presence. And while dance troupe Flawless do have some fun routines they aren’t as tight as they should be. New Zealand comedian Jarred Christmas is the least known of the celebs, but makes for a jolly and likeable Smee and is the only cast member to successfully deliver the script’s punchlines. Elsewhere, George Ure is a surprisingly underused but suitably cartoonish Peter Pan, Francesca Mills is enjoyable as the mischievous Tinker Bell, and Sharon Ballard belts out the tunes as both a mermaid and an Indian.
But there’s no sense of narrative flow. The scenes are too long and lack energy; they are also filled with poor jokes and underdeveloped performances, whilst the plot is more a series of pantomime tick boxes than a faithful recreation of the J.M. Barrie classic. Visually this is an exciting production with detailed set design and some fiery special effects and convincing flight. The band and choreography, too, are great, but too frequently backing tracks are used as Flawless leap into action.
Above all, there’s a distinct lack of Christmas cheer here. Perhaps Peter Pan is too hard to make festive, but other venues appear to manage it. A cascade of snow at the show’s opening isn’t really going to cut it and both children and adults will see through it easily enough. In more ways than one, this is a panto that sends its audience the worst kind of signals.