Attending the Marlowe Theatre pantomime really is like being at a huge party. Chris Wong’s band, in boxes on both sides of the stage creates a fabulous atmosphere and at one point Wong himself is on stage playing virtuoso electric guitar in full Indian Chief costume – nothing is predictable in this entertaining show which has us singing, dancing, clapping and enjoying the traditions along with some sparky innovations.
Did I mention tradition? The “Marlowe Theatre Ghost Bench” which has to be carried by a “fat bloke in a dress” dictates the tone of a ghosts and ghoulies scene probably doesn’t even need rehearsing because it delights the audience by being exactly the same each year – although the haunting ghost isn’t usually flown in so that’s a fresh touch. The whole scene is, moreover, a rather touching tribute to the late, great Dave Lee who played the dame at Canterbury for so long and still always gets a mention and a round of applause.
Since he took over from Lee, Ben Roddy really made the dame role his own. As Mrs Smee – writer Paul Hendy has found a neat way of knitting the dame into the entire action by making “her” a pirate - he pouts, struts, times his lines with stunning precision and forms a terrific comic duo with Lloyd Hollett, Canterbury’s regular funny guy. They are very good at asides which may or may not be scripted. Towards the end, for example, when they’re both been firing on high energy pistons for over two hours Roddy turns to Hollett and says “Do you know what we need?” “A day off?” quips Hollett. It’s lovely comedy – clean, intelligent and carefully angled for family audiences in city like Canterbury.
David Ribi gives us a suitably youthful and very appealing Peter Pan, flying in from the balcony for his first entrance and still spinning on his harness and scattering golden leaves over the stalls audience at the finale. Samantha Dorrance is pretty and sweetly feisty as Wendy and her singing voice is delightful. Tinkerbell is played with lots of personality by Jo Osmond who is half the height of most other actors on stage. Gemma Hunt is good value as the feminist Tiger Lily
The household names in this production are Wendi Peters and Shaun Williamson. Peters, ever versatile, delights as the very shrill, needy chief mermaid, a dour Squatting Cow with a Yorkshire accent and a homely saccharine Mrs Darling. Williamson is gravelly, cross and – of course – scared stiff of the crocodile which in this show is a life-sized puppet.
There’s some impressive ensemble work too including some very competent children. The roles of John and Michael are shared by three children across the run. The boy playing John on press night (dubbed a “pint-sized Harry Potter” by Roddy’s character) brought the house down with a political speech about human rights – masses of dead-pan stage presence.
One of the best things in this show, though, is The Black Eagles, a four man acrobatic team from Tanzania. Their work is utterly stunning. Of course we don’t want panto to turn into variety show but it really would have made sense to give these chaps a little more scope to strut their stuff. As it is they simply provide very brief bits here and there and that seems like an opportunity missed.