In the past ten years, the world of British Pantomime has seen an upheaval in its production methodology thanks to the rise of the QDOS and First Family Entertainment companies (the latter being a joint between the Ambassador Theatre Group and LiveNation.) Both companies are responsible for mass produced pantos, chock full of celebrities - both American and British - and and in the case of the former, special effects (last year’s QDOS Aladdin featured a 3D holographic genie) and, sadly, a rather generic product.
For foreign readers, I should explain a bit about panto season: A panto’s lifespan is merely six to eight weeks, and productions almost always sell out, which is why a number of smaller regional companies use their annual production as a key fundraiser. That said, most modern pantomimes are remarkably high end productions featuring as many set changes as a West End musical and possibly even more costumes so getting one up is frighteningly expensive and because these are family shows and frequently populated by school groups, ticket prices need to stay low. For performers, panto is absolute hell: the performance schedule ranges from 12 to 16 performances a week.
Needless to say, there’s a lot of money flying around and for a commercial producer, it’s an absolutely daunting proposition. Enter QDOS and FFE who have an advantage that independent companies, such as the Hackney Empire don’t: scale. This year, for example, FFE are putting on 12 shows, and QDOS are putting on even more. Of them, most will in some way be recycled - the sets and costumes go into storage come February and go off to a new city in December, sometimes with the prior year’s script (albeit with a few updates to reflect local interests and current affairs.) In other words, the manufacturing costs go down (65% of the QDOS budget goes to production payroll) and if a theatre in Glasgow gets last year’s show from Brighton, well, it’s new to them.
Anyways, this leads us to this year’s Peter Pan at the Richmond Theatre. While amusing, March’s disastrous run of the Spanish Peter Pan El Musical did little to endear me to the story, which I loved growing up (thanks to the cartoon on Fox.) Unfortunately, there was little new about this more traditional production. In this case, Peter Pan is in a similar place to last year’s Cinderella at the Old Vic, as it straddles the line between family play and proper panto. Bonnie Langford is lovely and something of an institution in the title role (one she’s been playing on and off for at least twenty years) but somebody forgot to direct in at least one mandatory pantomime thigh-slap amidst some impressive aerials. Simon Callow tried as Captain Hook, but the role’s true menace down - a child behind me was cheering him on and Callow had to demand boos from the audience in the first act. Tony Rudd was fun in the role of bumbling Boson Smee, but Samantha Gifford was rather bland as Wendy (not really her fault - the role exists to stamp down everybody else’s fun.) The singalong at the end was also a standby ("What do you do with a drunken sailor?") and audience members were left without a lyric sheet (I confess that I don't know the middle part) and it didn't matter anyways because the sound in the upper circle was awful.
This was my first time at one of the major companies’ shows, and I’ll be entirely honest: I only went because I wanted to see Bonnie Langford. I paid about £10 more for my seat in the upper circle than I did for centre stalls at Mother Goose in Hackney (factoring in booking fee and transit to Zone 4,) and received a show that was professional in every way, but ultimately lacking in excitement and Panto Power.
And I have another Peter coming up after Christmas as well. Because there’s no way I’m missing Brian Blessed as Captain Hook.
Where: Richmond Theatre, Richmond
When: Until 11 Jan., M, W-Sa @ 14:00 and 19:00, Su @ 13:30 and 17:30
How Much: £20-£27
Concessions: Family tickets and concessions available on a limited basis.
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: £15. It wasn’t bad, but wasn’t great.
RZ Other Notes: While the upper circle lacks leg room, the rake is fantastic and I had a clear view of everything on stage except for about 20 seconds where the Darling children fly to the absolute top of the space and their heads were missing. I didn’t get to check out the first circle or the stalls, but I’d avoid any rear section for this show.
Also, I really wish they weren’t selling all sorts of spinning toys with flashing lights and loud motors. Sadly these sold in abundance and it looked like every child in the audience had one - I think I saw more of these than interval ice creams.