Review: Duns panto, Peter Pan

110 years after J.M. Barrie’s masterpiece, Peter Pan, was first staged Duns and District Amateur Operatic Society showed this tale of the boy who never grew up has lost none of its magic.

The production was a multiple first for DDAOS: the first time the Society has staged Peter Pan, with first-time roles for many of those involved. It was also the Society’s first panto for many years without the considerable expertise of Euan McIver and Rick Mondeau or the dance flair of choreographer Sarah Aitken. However, this year’s producers, Genny Dixon and Lynn Gray, proved up to the job of marshalling a cast of 34 children, dressed as pirates, Red Indians and Lost Boys, and Berwickshire High School pupil April-Lea Taylor made an impressive debut as choreographer.

The panto was also Matthew Taylor’s first outing as a drag queen, in the role of mature squaw Laughing Water, mother of Tiger Lily.

There were fewer special effects than in previous years (Health & Safety ruled out flight), but the scenery was impressive: some panels borrowed from the summer’s production of The Jungle Book and others painted for the occasion to create the magic of Neverland and the pirate ship.

The plot revolves around Peter Pan, the charismatic,, gauche boy in Neverland, a dream-like world of eternal youth and fun. He commands the Lost Boys who delight in a life of endless playtime while longing for a mother’s love.

If Peter Pan is about escaping the constraint of the adult world, it’s also about tribes and tribal loyalties. There are tribes galore: pirates, fairies, Red Indians, not to mention the Darling family and their ever-loyal dog. The tribal distinctions are ideal when it comes to adapting a panto for a large cast. Each group has its own identity and agenda, costume and way of talking, offering plenty of different small parts for lots of actors and leaving no-one invisible on the back row of the chorus.

The action opens with Peter (Rebekah Herbert) shadow fighting his great nemesis, Captain Hook (Peter Lerpiniere), the pirate leader, in a re-enactment of the events that caused their mutual hatred: years ago Peter cut off the Captain’s hand and fed it to an enormous crocodile which now patrols Neverland searching for the rest of the Captain to eat. The croc also managed to swallow an alarm clock whose ticking fills Hook with terror.

Hook, resplendent in red satin coat and shoulder-length curly, black wig (“like Charles II after a night on the tiles”), turns out to be a bit a toff, with an Eton education, no less, to his claim.

We’re soon introduced to his sidekicks, the, cheeky Mr Smee (Euan Taylor) and stuffy Gentleman Starkey (Emily Drewery), plus the rest of the pirate gang. Next it’s the Red Indians who receive an airing under the leadership of Tiger Lily (Maddy Lerpiniere) and her mother Laughing Water (Matthew Taylor).

The scene changes to the Darling children’s bedroom in London. The Darling parents (Vicky Bayles and Peter Lerpiniere in his other panto guise) are about to go out to dinner. As they say goodnight to their children Wendy (Rachel Gray), John (Rory Myatt) and Michael (Kyle Taylor), Mrs Darling tells how she saw a strange boy who left his shadow behind in the bedroom and how she has thoughtfully stowed it in a chest of drawers.

The parents leave, with dog Nana (Lauren Todd). Wendy, sings ‘When will my life be free?’, a signal for Peter and Tinkerbell (Jemima Bevan) to look for Peter’s shadow. After Tinkerbell finds it and Wendy sews it back on, the shadow (Chloe Scott) mimics Peter’s every move in a clever touch.

Wendy and Peter sing their first duet, a real pleasure in their clear voices. The Darling children take flight for Neverland, their route, of course, “second star to the right and then straight on till morning”.

Disaster almost strikes towards the end of Act I when jealous Tinkerbell persuades the Lost Boys Peter wants them to shoot the ‘Wendy Bird’, leaving Wendy with an arrow in her chest and leading to the construction of the Wendy House to shelter her.

Act II opens with the Indians breaking into their own version of Ode to Joy (this is panto, remember). The Indians’ names receive a local retranslation, too, into Duns pub names: Black Bull, White Swan, Whip & Saddle...

Then the pirates creep up and carry off everybody back to their ship, except Peter, who with a fine stroke of dramatic irony, remains oblivious to this catastrophe in the Lost Boys’ cave, singing ‘Stay Forever Young’ to Tinkerbell. This solo, in Rebekah’s lovely voice, must surely be the song of the show.

Hook poisons Peter’s medicine and one of the most poignant moments is watching mute Tinkerbell drink the medicine herself to save Peter’s life. To revive her, Peter calls on the audience with the inimitable words: “Do you believe in fairies? If you believe, clap your hands!” Of course, we clapped like mad.

Back on the ship, Hook gloats over the prisoners and celebrates victory with of “I’m the King of the Seven Seas”. Peter arrives to save them, and, when threatened with death by Hook, replies with the immortal: “To die would be an awfully big adventure”. What makes him say it? Naivity, innocence, the blurring of reality between life and death?

But everything turns out well in the end. Captain Hook regrets he ever went to a posh school when he gets “Eton” by Snappy the Hungry Crocodile (John Hope), and the sad Darlings, in their empty nursery, are delighted to have their three children returned to them, plus a few extra Lost Boys to adopt. Wendy wasn’t so delighted to discover she would be allowed to visit Peter in Neverland once a year for a week – to do his cleaning.

The final song, “We’re all in this together” was a real treat, with excellent dance moves, great energy and fun. Coming after a performance of three hours (including interval), it was worth the wait.

Those who deserve a special mention include Jemima Bevan as Tinkerbell, who managed to convey her anger, jealousy and devotion to Peter without speaking a word.

Rebekah Herbert as Peter Pan: Rebekah is a long-standing member of DDAOS with numerous acting and singing roles under her belt, but here she showed a maturity and confidence which, took her acting to a new level.

Rachel Gray as Wendy: this is Rachel’s first major role for DDAOS, but she expressed the conflict between Wendy’s yearning for freedom and responsible motherly instincts perfectly. Maddy Lerpiniere as Tiger Lily: it is hard to believe Maddy is only 13 – her performance was thoughtful and mature.

Euan Taylor as Smee encapsulated the cheeky chappy – a great job. Peter Lerpiniere as Captian Hook: Peter will be the first to admit that he is an old hand at acting, but this role, really suited him.

Junior dancers Sophie Scott (Teddy), Jessica Taylor (Doll) and Lydia Bayles (Soldier): for standing still so long in the Darling’s’ bedroom before performing. Applause also to the back-stage crew, led by Stage Manager Jim McDevitt.