THE show title signifies changes afoot and freshness, but York Theatre Royal knows continuity is important too.
In the third year of the pantomime partnership with Evolution Productions – with a fourth year already rubber stamped for Jack And The Beanstalk next winter – Juliet Forster remains the director, Paul Hendy, the writer, and Hayley Del Harrison, the choreographer.
Children’s favourite Faye Campbell returns too, alongside the double-the-trouble double act of Paul Hawkyard and Robin Simpson, Cinderella’s award-nominated Ugly Sisters last year and now villainous Captain Hook and dame Mrs Smee respectively.
Having a CBeebies TV presenter to the fore last year in Andy Day proved a hit, and so science whizz Maddie Moate fronts the poster and flyer campaign this time as a feisty, fearless, even fractious Tinkerbell.
What’s new? The story for a start, still rooted in JM Barrie, but for the next generation. Wendy Darling is now Wendy Sweet (Theatre Royal newcomer Francesca Benton-Stace), mum to single-minded Elizabeth (Campbell), who craves her own flight to Neverland with Peter Pan (Jason Battersby). Elizabeth is more of a feminist, never attracted to Peter in the way Wendy was, but very much a dab hand at the “Lizzie Mother” role to the Lost Boys and Lost Girls.
There’s a new Newfoundland nanny dog in the house too, Nana being replaced by Minton, who leaves a mark on the show in more than one way. Naughty, Minton.
The father of the house, Hawkyard’s Mr Sweet, still turns into Captain Hook; Simpson’s dame makes a rather smaller leap for pantokind from home help Mrs Smee to Hook’s henchperson Mrs Smee. Likewise, Jonny Weldon, actor since childhood and social media comedy-sketch phenomenon since Covid lockdowns, switches from butler Mr Starkey to Hook’s other henchman, Starkey.
The double act becomes a mischief-making trio, Hawkyard’s dandy, intemperate Hook still ridiculously vainglorious but the butt of multiple jokes as shock-haired cheeky chappy Weedon and Simpson’s savvy dame conduct a pun fight to the last.
Oh, how writer Paul Hendy loves a pun, no matter how convoluted the set-up, and when it is combined with visual gags in a fish-name routine, reprising the magazine-title routine from 2020’s Travelling Pantomime, the jokes really get their skates on, faster, funnier, fishier.
Act One hits its stride amid the mayhem of Hawkyard, Simpson and Weldon struggling to manoeuvre a boat across the stage, dangerously close to the orchestra pit, reducing fourth occupant Moate’s to fits of laughter on the stern. This scene, already ripe for improvisation, will grow ever more chaotic as the run progresses.
Moate’s beaming Tinkerbell had made her first entry from above, flying high over the stage. Soon Battersby’s Pan, a magical, mysterious yet damaged perennial child, will lead Campbell’s Elizabeth across the London night sky to a duet of Take That’s Rule The World and onwards to Neverland in a gorgeous video projection by Dr Andy.
Later, in Act Two, Simpson’s Mrs Smee will emerge from on high too to the accompaniment of the James Bond theme, now playing flipper-clad Caroline Bond on a hoist that stubbornly refuses to touch the ground despite Simpson’s increasingly desperate pleas. Comic timing is exquisite here, and again, for all Simpson’s self-sacrificing physical discomfort, this scene is sure to expand.
Hendy and director Juliet Forster love the magic of pantomime as much as the comic mayhem rendered by haughty Hawkyard and co. This applies equally to Helga Wood, Michelle Marden and Stuart Relph’s set design, for London house, island and aboard the Jolly Roger, and to Harrison’s fizzing and fun choreography, and they are never happier than when magic and mirth elide in the Mermaids, beautiful and shimmering at first, but then turning into gossipy fish wives.
Benton-Stace’s scene-stealing Myrtle the Mermaid gives the outstanding vocal performance under Benjamin Dovey’s musical direction, run close by Hawkyard’s riotous Guns N’ Rose number, Neil Morgan guitar solo et al.
Cultural references play their part, from departing Boris Johnson to departing Dr Who Jodie Whittaker; Moate is granted a brief science bit; Campbell’s Elizabeth turns on the girl power and dance captain Emily Taylor drives on her troupe of Lost Boys and Girls with boundless energy.
Big, big cheers go to the show’s speciality act, East African acrobats Teddy, Muba and Mohamed, alias The Black Diamonds, who defy the compact space to pull off dazzling feats of athleticism.
“All New” these adventures may be, but the increasingly tedious Sweet Caroline is an unimaginative choice for the song-sheet singalong. Not so good, so good, alas. Far better is the impact of Duncan Woodruff’s fight direction for Hook’s clashes with magic-powered fairy Tinkerbell, Elizabeth and Pan alike.
Michael J Batchelor and Joey Arthurs' beautiful but bonkers costumes for Simpson’s dame keep topping the last one, and it is lovely to see the Theatre Royal walkdown scene in full pomp once more in gold, cream and white.
Something of the darkness of Barrie’s original story is lost in pursuit of pantomime frolics, but York Theatre Royal and Evolution unquestionably have found their groove, their own schtick, that appeals to children and adults alike. Simpson’s convivial dame is already confirmed for next year, another sign of continuity in this new age for the Theatre Royal pantomime.