Peter Pan given a dazzling Derry makeover at the Millennium Forum
Big musical numbers, pyrotechnics and pixie dust-like sprinklings of the city's trademark sense of humour takes the age-old panto to a magical new place
Mulled wine, mistletoe, mince pies – they are all synonymous with Christmas, but nothing quite screams the excitement of the festive period like panto. This year however the Millennium Forum has seriously upped its game, with digital backdrops, dazzling pyrotechnics and impressive vocal talents added to the traditional sing-alongs, sparkle and merriment, without losing any of the inherently mighty silliness.
Smoke settles over the crowd, the low hum of tinkly music and excitable chittering of kids letting us know we are in for a cracker. Before long Peter Pan and the cast remind us, particularly at this time of year, that no-one ever really grows up. And this re-mash of a classic certainly has something that will appeal to everyone; even those of a more serious disposition are sure to crack a smile at the close-to-home political one-liners.
Panto-veteran William Caulfield as Captain Hook the villain we all love to hate, proves he can play the beloved role of baddie just as well as any Dame. Having a female take the titular role, meanwhile, is a nod back to the story's pantomime tradition and Ellen Hasson fits the role like Peter fits his shadow. Her sparkling performance makes her a firm favourite with the little ones, sustaining the high notes while flying across the stage in powerful musical numbers. It's clear she has a background steeped in singing.
A ‘while Derry hi!’ version of a classic, with Big Chief, minging feet and plenty of Derry Girls references, the script is bold, brilliant and witty. Panto doesn't abide by the same rules of the perpetually-offended modern world – oh no it doesn't! - so it is refreshing to witness this much loved tradition of tongue-in-cheek, un-PC potty humour. For example, the presence of female pirates, if only to keep the ‘feminists in the council’ at bay.
Jam-packed with plenty of Derryisms, as an audience we feel almost privy to insider jokes: Wendy might well indeed be from 'Culmore Road' with her reserved mannerisms and by-the-book demeanour. Or Sharkey the unfortunate pirate crew member who can’t sing or dance; which goes over the heads of most of the under 30s in attendance.
However it’s the three 'Derry-Majella' cackling mermaids scene which provides comedy gold. Akin to Macbeth’s witches, we eavesdrop on their gossiping and wish for a decent man, with shouts of 'Awk I thought you were bringing us the wee English fella offa Derry Girls'. A few seconds in it’s evident that this lot certainly aren’t the mythical sirens who enticed many a sailor to their doom. Brushing their not so sleek locks, one wrestles to get her brush through her knotted tresses whilst another, sporting heavy facial stubble, crudely scratches an itchy bum with the help of a hand-held mirror. 'They aren't how I expected them to be,' Wendy interjects. But nothing ever really is, that’s adulthood for you Wendy.
Since no music spectacular is truly complete without an injection of this year’s biggest musical, The Greatest Showman, the cast bring its touch of Hollywood to the Forum through soundtrack selections given even more of a wow factor with fire-dancing, bare-bellied men and impressive pyrotechnic displays.
The standout performance of the night goes to Conor O'Kane as Smee, the glue holding the fabric of each scene seamlessly together. The instigator of audience participation, he has a likeability palpable from the minute he utters his first lines. The presence of two sign language interpreters deserve special mention also, translating every laugh and song from either side of the stage and ensuring no one is immune to the night's jovial repartee.
And while it may bring delight and horror in equal measure, the inescapable 'Baby Shark' allows the big kid in every audience member out for some silliness and laughter. After all, isn’t that what Christmas is all about?
This year it feels like more than just panto – it's truly magical, and sets the bar unnervingly high for next year. My roguish, almost three year old daughter, who has yet to sit through an episode of anything, sat completely enraptured from beginning to end – high praise indeed from the toughest of critics.
So go on, listen to the immortal words of Pan and 'think of all the joy you'll find when you leave the world behind', if just one night. You might even enjoy it as much as the little ones.
Peter Pan is at the Millennium Forum until Sunday, December 30. For daily show times and ticket booking visit www.millenniumforum.co.uk/shows/peter-pan or contact the Box Office on 028 7126 4455.