Theatre reviews: Peter Pan | The Snow Queen, Perth Theatre | The Snow Queen, The Arches
PETER PAN **** HIS MAJESTY'S THEATRE, ABERDEEN THE SNOW QUEEN *** PERTH THEATRE THE SNOW QUEEN ** THE ARCHES, GLASGOW
THIS has been a remarkable year for theatre in Aberdeen. The new Aberdeen Performing Arts initiative was launched in September, with a heartfelt production of Sunset Song that toured to Glasgow, Edinburgh, Perth and Inverness; the bankrupt Lemon Tree arts centre was taken over and saved, and soon became host to a short season of new writing that should produce some exciting work over the next few years. The city rounds off the year with one of the finest pantos of the season, in Alan Cohen's clever, warm-hearted, deeply traditional yet bang-up-to-the-minute staging of the pantomime version of Peter Pan.
It's a measure of the strength of JM Barrie's wonderful story, of course, that it lends itself to so many different kinds of drama, from animated films to serious children's theatre. But with the addition of a comedy cook aboard Captain Hook's ship, who happens to be the doting Mum of cabin-boy Smee, it also makes a great pantomime, particularly when it's blessed – as it is in Aberdeen – with such a joyful combination of inspired casting, and real enjoyment of all the old panto rituals.
Cohen's Peter Pan is none other than Keith Jack, the Edinburgh-born Any Dream Will Do star who has since begun a successful career in stage musicals; and although he's not a great actor, he sings well, and has a big, genial personality. His superb Captain Hook is Alan Fletcher, best known to British audiences as Dr Carl Kennedy in Neighbours, but also a rock musician with a great voice; his Smee is young Jordan Young, one of the rising stars of the new generation of Scottish actors.
And his Dame, above all – the fabulous, irrepressible, Maggie Celeste ("adrift without a man in sight") – is Alan McHugh, who learned his panto trade in Kirkcaldy, and is now perhaps the best Scottish Dame around. His comic double-act with the dimwitted Smee is the very heart and soul of traditional knockabout panto, full of idiotic verbal misunderstandings and mild slapstick; they even do that old "Busy Bee" number, with the mouths full of water. Their local jokes are rich and jolly, if not exactly bitingly satirical; "Oh look," says the Dame, flying on a wire during the Saturday matinee, "I can see Pittodrie from up here, and we're 2-0 up against Falkirk!"
And in terms of participation, this company have the audience eating out of their hands, roaring "behind-you"s and "oh, no you don't"s as if Aberdeen were bidding for a new image as the jolliest city in Britain. Add lots of wee Aberdeen kids up on stage dancing their hearts out, and some gorgeous, magical flying from Peter Pan, and you have a near-perfect family panto. All it needs is for the story to come full circle at the end, back to the Darlings' city bedroom, and perfection might actually be achieved.
The Snow Queen, too, is one of the finest of all midwinter children's stories, the wonderful tale of a boy betrayed by the sliver of hardness in his own heart, and of the brave little girl who rescues him. There's a sense, though, that The Snow Queen – such a powerful tale a quarter of a century ago, when we seemed threatened by nuclear winter – struggles to find the same resonance in an age when melting ice has become an image of doom; and neither Perth Theatre nor the Arches does Hans Christian Andersen's beautiful tale full justice this year.
Perth Theatre chooses Stuart Paterson's great 1980s version of the script, with its strong sense of a natural world thrown out of joint by human cruelty and heartlessness; but while Ian Grieve's production makes the most of the jolly boo-hiss aspects of the tale, it somehow misses out on its underlying pulse of beauty, poetry and lyricism. Part of the fault lies with Robin Peoples's bizarre designs, which reduce the heroine Gerda, and her lost boy Kay, to a pair of weird, lurid-looking cartoon figures in orange and electric-blue wigs; the stylised fairytale sets are excellent, but the costumes are distractingly bizarre. And the other difficulty lies in the acting style, which is shrill and chirpy to the point of irritation, when real drama and poetry is sometimes called for. The result is a Snow Queen with no moral weight or resonance, despite Amanda Beveridge's best scary efforts in the title role; although the show still makes a colourful piece of yah-boo Christmas entertainment, much enjoyed by an enthusiastic, if slightly sparse, Perth audience.
And at The Arches – well, these little Christmas shows can do no wrong, so far as their audiences are concerned; but that's not a licence to turn out work that could be much more impressive and magical, given greater self-discipline and sensitivity. Al Seed and Megan Barker's 55-minute Snow Queen has a lovely Gerda in Charlene Boyd, and a fine granny-cum-Snow Queen in Morag Stark; and it has fun with the idea of transforming Gerda's adventures, along the road, into a series of familiar fairytale situations from other stories.
But it also has some dodgy, feebly- executed visual effects, some downright poor shadow-puppetry, and one notably weak performance from a troll who can't even get a laugh by pretending to fart. Children like Christmas shows, and will often produce a good response even to the worst of them. But that's no excuse for using them as a testing-ground for second-rate work; and the loyal Arches Christmas audience deserve a sharper show than this next time round.
• Peter Pan is at His Majesty's Theatre until 4 January. The Snow Queen is at Perth Theatre until 3 January and at The Arches until 4 January.
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Tuesday 18 June 2013
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