For the British, Christmas means Pantomime and vice versa. It is a night out for the family and, for many, their first memory in the theatre. As I, a foreigner, had never seen a panto before, I had no idea what to expect when I got my ticket for the two-hour show at Manchester Opera House.
After I realised that The Pantomime Adventures of Peter Pan (PAPP) would not involve the sad and monochrome Pierrot, I prepared myself for a campy, Dora-the-Explorer-style Peter Pan instead. While that expectation was certainly fulfilled with the audience’s active involvement (“oh yes it is! – oh no it isn’t!”), the performance proved to me that pantos are so much more than immature children’s shows.
And for that, there is no better evidence than my own uncontrollable laughs… and I’m nearly 30! Don’t get me wrong, panto’s primary role is entertainment—definitely not education—but the effort that is put into it and its showcase of talents must be recognised and celebrated.
PAPP’s story is a sequel to J.M. Barrie’s well-known story of Peter Pan. Pan (Ross Carpenter), Neverland’s hero, who refuses to grow up. Neverland’s waterfalls run out of pixie dust, so Tink (Samara Casteallo) asks for Wendy’s (Jessica Croll) help to solve the mystery. As always—especially in the festive season—the answer is love. Of course, Captain Hook (Great British comedic icon Jason Manford) is ready to take his revenge on Pan with his sidekick, Smee (Ben Nickless, a fixture of Manchester Opera House pantos).
As Harry Michael’s plot doesn’t get any more complex than this, even the youngest audience members can understand it and, by extension, enjoy it. After all, the storyline is only secondary in PAPP: it is but a theme and a frame to Michael’s eye-tearing jokes.
Now, don’t be fooled: the title is misleading. This show is not about Pan, Wendy, or Tink. Although these characters have a number of—albeit slightly forgettable—songs and a few minutes of stage presence, they are only there to bring the ‘family’ into ‘family entertainment’ by amusing the little ones with their charming smiles, colourful costumes (by Ron Briggs), and pretty voices.
Instead, the correct title of PAPP should be Captain Hook and Smee’s Pantomime Standup because most of the show is dominated by the sparkling chemistry of this duo of scoundrels. While it’s Nickless’ fourth time performing in a pantomime, Manford’s debut seems just as professional. Not only are they hilarious with their perfectly timed punches, but they are wonderful dancers, rappers, and singers, too (Manford’s ‘Cry Me a River’ performance is phenomenal, to say the least).
As for their mermaid scene… well, let’s just say that no Panto is complete without a good drag performance. In this case, it means that we get to see them wearing talking bras. Unfortunately, because of these two gigantic personalities, the rest of the characters fade into the background.
Indeed, Manford and Nickless are completely ridiculous to the point that, at least when I saw the production, they kept breaking the magic by switching between themselves as actors and the characters they portrayed. It was especially noticeable when Manford’s Salford accent resurfaced and Smee pointed it out — thus mixing fantasy with reality —, when his wig fell off, and when he forgot which hand he had been wearing his hook.
These innocent, honest moments made both the actors and the audience lose the plot at once. They also made the show so much better because they reinforced the very takeaway of pantomime as a genre in general: to not take everything so seriously when it is just better to have a laugh at ourselves sometimes. No wonder this genre is so popular in Britain!
Fortunately, this show is a comedy masterclass. It has uncanny impressions of celebrities set to multiple songs ranging from Taylor Swift to The Proclaimers. It also has bad dad jokes and puns that will make you facepalm and roll your eyes. There are live, improvised roasts of audience members (“She looks like Carol, my GP’s receptionist”, “He reminds me of Harry Potter who let himself go”), and the show’s region-specific humour, involving the express train from Piccadilly Station to Neverland, never fails either.
It is because PAPP finds the perfect balance between traditional clownish and contemporary dark humour (e.g. about the rising living costs). PAPP’s most distinctive feature is perhaps that while a few jokes will make your entire family howl, there is a clear distinction between naughty adult and innocent child humour.
The smutty innuendo and sarcastic political satire (‘There’s a new prime minister every week and Matt Hancock has some cheek!’) are carried out by Hook and Smee to entertain the older generations, and they smoothly go off the children’s heads. Meanwhile, the cute little one-liners aimed at the kids are delivered by Pan, Wendy, and Tink.
Music and dance, of course, play a vital role in the show. Gary Lloyd’s choreography is highly entertaining, and there is a small live orchestra that helps the magic come together. The costumes are purposefully cheap-looking, as if they were bought at a fancy dress shop, which is the perfect aesthetic for a panto. Ian Westbrook’s colourful stage design is fantastic: it’s got pyrotechnics, smoke (and mirrors), and projected visuals, so it’s no surprise that it works so well with Richard G Jones’s lighting design.
At the very end of the first act, there is a humongous surprise that must be seen. It is more impressive than anything I have ever seen in any stage production before. Hence my surprise that, out of any show, it was in this one. It is ticking, it has big, sharp teeth, and it snaps at the audience. If you know, you know. Warning: it might be a little scary for the younger spectators close to the stage.
The audience was involved throughout the performance. We were taught how to boo, cheer, and evil laugh properly, and, at one point, we even became the stage performers ourselves with a simple but effective tool of technology. There is just one thing to remember: if you don’t want to be singled out, do not sit in the first few rows. Similarly to the The Lion King, the dancers even appear amongst us, so we are made to feel as if we are part of the show. But that’s just it. We really are.
Pantos require audience participation, which we voluntarily give: singing along, thunderously applauding, laughing, and dancing. At the very end of the show, Manford even invited us to record the last song. I’m not sure whether it was clever marketing camouflaged as spontaneous generosity, but who cares? It was fun!
The Pantomime Adventures of Peter Pan is a mixed performance of musical theatre, magic tricks, and circus acrobats (The Acromaniacs a.k.a. The Lost Boys). It feels contemporary with the involvement of modern technology and cultural references (such as Alexa), while it still serves all the elements of a traditional panto. The show finishes with a reinvented version of one of the best-known Christmas songs involving five toilet rolls, which, once again, made me laugh unapologetically. As Hook proclaimed it, the show is on twice a day for the next three weeks (until New Year’s Eve), so make sure that you get your ticket to Neverland to remember what it feels like to be a child again.
The Pantomime Adventures of Peter Pan plays at Manchester Opera House until December 31.