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Theatre review: Peter Pan/ Liverpool Empire

Henry Winkler, Les Dennis and Natasha Hamilton aren't quite enough to make this Peter Pan truly fly, says Philip Key

Published on December 16th 2009.

Theatre review: Peter Pan/ Liverpool Empire

IT may have an American star but there is a distinct Scouse flavour to Peter Pan at the Liverpool Empire. There are Liverpool co-stars, Liverpool references in the script and even a Liverpool choreographer.

It’s a pity that the script by one Eric Potts is not funnier. All the old chestnuts are there – “This is an American dress, one Yank and it’s off!” – along with local references like having his hair done by Herbert

Of course, J.M.Barrie never intended to have Liverpudlians in his script. He had a posh London family complete with a nanny, albeit one in the shape of a dog and known as Nana.

This Peter Pan is the panto version and that means anything goes. In Liverpool that includes two completely new dame characters, Nurse Nora and Nutroast Nora, both played by Liverpool comic Les Dennis.

The result is a peculiar mix of fantasy, Victorian values, song and drama with red nose comedy thrown in.

It’s not always an easy blend but it just about works.

Topping the bill is American Henry Winkler, still best known for his role as the super cool, leather-jacketed Fonz in the TV series Happy Days.

He plays the dual role of Victorian dad Mr Darling and pirate chief Captain Hook, a chap who lost his hand, according to the gruesome story, by having it chopped off by Peter Pan and thrown to a crocodile.

Mr Darling does not get a lot to do apart from coping with three children - Michael and John and older sister Wendy. Winkler really comes into his own when he takes on the role of Hook, the blustering noisy pirate chief whose crew are only slightly less useless than himself.

But while he threatens the Darling children - and those in the audience – “I’ll come down there and poison your ice-creams!” – this villain is rarely very menacing.

He collects a few boos along the way, indeed almost pleads for them, but Winkler, you see, is going for comedy rather than terror. He even mocks his old Fonz character, although it’s a side he exploits surprisingly little.

As the self-styled “creepiest creep in the world”, he contents himself with cracking jokes with his crew and occasionally threatening Pan, the curious boy who never grew up and who flies around abducting the Darling kids to join his motley band of “Lost Boys” in Never Land.

Winkler has taken on this role before and it shows in his obvious delight in strutting his stuff around the stage delivering those awful gags: “You are the weakest Tink,” he tells his fairy chum Tinker Bell, played not by an actor but a spotlight.

His nemesis, Peter Pan, is played by former Atomic Kitten and Liverpudlian Natasha Hamilton. She is meant to be a boy but she certainly would not fool me.Okay, she stands with hands on hips, legs akimbo and tries to look tough, but with her long hair and shorts designed to look like a skirt she’s a girl all right.

She prances around in good style while director John Bishop (a former Carlton head of light entertainment and not the comedian) skilfully disguises the fact that it is not the pregnant Hamilton who is doing the flying. The unnamed double is a perfect match and, when the lights dim, it is difficult to notice who actually is up there on the wire.

Hamilton does okay as Pan, gets to sing a bit, including an Atomic Kitten number, Whole Again, and while her sword fighting may be a little girly she gives Pan a bit of stage presence.

Les Dennis is almost unrecognisable. As Nurse Nora he is almost attractive (almost, I said) and a little laid back.

But he really goes for it as Nutroast Nora, part of the pirate gang. Here he gets the full-blown dame outfit with fright wig and billowing skirts and gives it plenty of oomph.

It’s a pity that the script by one Eric Potts is not funnier. All the old chestnuts are there – “This is an American dress, one Yank and it’s off!” – along with local references like having his hair done by Herbert.

There are a couple of Tiger Woods jokes – it seems his new name is Cheetah – and nods to television shows: “Sev-en!”, “Deal or No Deal”, “Good game!”, etc. And the ever-popular fart jokes, guaranteed to get the kiddies giggling.

Dennis also does a few quick impersonations including Rolf Harris (old hat) and Stacey Solomon from the X Factor (rather good, actually).

The show includes some musical numbers choreographed by Liverpool’s Lee Kelly, there are colourful sets of the old school style and singalongs (Hey Jude) plus the kids brought on stage to join in the singalong.

All in all, a pretty traditional pantomime that entertains without ever reaching the heights. It’s not that it fails just that it never exceeds expectations.

7/10 Fair to middling fun.

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