There’s no doubt that JM Barrie’s original Peter Pan is a great Christmas play; but it often seems to me that even the genius of a gifted panto writer such as Alan McHugh – who not only wrote the Q-dos version that forms this year’s panto at His Majesty’s, but also stars as usual as its gap-toothed Dame – is not enough to transform this strange tale of adulthood deferred into the right material for a pantomime.
Peter Pan | Rating **** | His Majesty’s Theatre, Aberdeen
A Ladder To The Stars | Rating *** | Lemon Tree, Aberdeen
There’s no real space for the normal comic characters of Dame and daft laddie; there’s no happy ending, nor any strong sense of resolution. And as for the character of the kindly Magic Mermaid, played here by Elaine C Smith – well, let’s just say that in order to accommodate her voluptuous fishy presence, whole swathes of the plot have to be discarded.
What’s left is a slightly uneasy explosion of essential plot elements, big musical numbers, and spectacular effects, wrapped up in raw local humour, and some spectacularly fine fish jokes, culminating in Elaine C’s no-holds-barred version of I’m All About That Bass, No Haddock, with the bass pronounced as in the fish.
There’s still plenty of fun to be had, though, in a glamorous show that features an outstanding panto trio in Smith, McHugh and daft laddie Jordan Young. Scott Fletcher is a superb if slightly underwritten Peter Pan, Maggie Lynne a lovely Wendy Darling; and the wee lads playing her little brothers John and Michael are terrific, Michael clutching his teddy bear throughout.
And if some of the fishy Salmond-and-Sturgeon political jokes fell strangely flat, on a night when Alex Salmond himself was in the audience – well, Scotland is divided at the moment on whether our leading politicians are wicked villains, or lovable national treasures; and no amount of panto fun, alas, can do much to change that.
At the Lemon Tree, meanwhile, Aberdeen Performing Arts and Visible Fictions offer up A Ladder To The Stars by Simon Puttock, a 45-minute show for under-5s that starts briliantly, as performers Hannah Howie and Ronan McMahon tell the story of a little girl – an instantly lovable puppet-figure in a red dress – who is celebrating her seventh birthday, and receiving a dancing-star music box as a present.
The problem, though, is that after the little girl makes her birthday wish to go dancing with a star, she soon vanishes from the story. The new protagonist is the star itself, a less well-defined character; and as he moves through an over-long (and confusingly ladder-less) quest to help the little girl fulfil her wish, the children in the audience grow restless.
And finally, at the point of resolution, the play abruptly decides to take on issues of ageing and death. Too much, too suddenly introduced, I’d say, for such a young audience.
And although there’s some magical storytelling and design along the way, at the end there’s not even a chance to meet the two puppets who embody the transition that has robbed us of the little girl, but replaced her with an old lady who still has the same venturing spirit, and brave heart.
• Peter Pan until 3 January; A Ladder To The Stars until 24 December