Following a stop/start few years which saw plenty of “Oh yes, it is” – followed by “Oh no, it isn’t” moments – the pantomime is back and there are no shortage of these entertaining family shows in Manchester.
The Opera House has always delivered a Christmas/NewYear show with a star name or two and I have seen a few bemused American TV and film stars looking completely out of place, as they begin a full on 4 – 5 week stint in front of unforgiving kids who want to be entertained.
This year they bring us a great Manchest-star – as Salford’s Jason Manford steps onto the Quay Street stage as Captain Hook. And he is completely aware that due to the fact that he is so bloody likable, when the boos appear they seem a bit halfhearted. So he delivers a ‘live’ training session on how to boo and when.
Joining Manford is Ben Nickless who I have seen many times and he always gives the audience VFM and this year is no different. His Gary Barlow impressions have always been spot on and this year he takes on a few more voices, proving that he has got talent worthy of his TV stint impressing Simon Cowell, Amanda Holden, David Walliams and Alesha Dixon on BGT.
Is there a plot? Well kind of and Harry Michaels has written in a fair few local gags and references to things outside of the world of Peter Pan. But there are also key scenes that kids will remember, including a show stopping croc who snaps at audience members sitting in the stalls. Manford and Nickless have also written some funnies to tickle your fancy.
Peter is played by Ross Carpenter and even though the character’s name is in the title, he is not on stage as often as you would like. But he does a good job keeping a straight face and convincing the audience he can fly. Often mucking about the background is the comedy duo of Manford and Nickless who have the ability to go off script – making the audience laugh at every opportunity that and this is more than welcome as that is something we really need right now. And the audience oblige, however corny and familiar the jokes are because these two have great comic timing and a genuine sense of fun and they are clearly having a blast.
At times, there does seem to be too much going on. We have The Acromaniacs with their excellent trampette skills, flying through the air with the greatest of ease, Wendy (Jessica Croll) appearing every now and then – looking for Peter, and Manford and Nickless telling great gags, reminiscent of Morecambe and Wise with a bit of adult humour and the odd song and bit of audience participation.
Add the excellent Samara Casteallo as a spirited and empowered Tink and you have familiar ingredients alongside so much more and the stage does feel a bit overstuffed at times, reminiscent of a Boxing Day meal.
But audiences attend a panto to escape and there are plenty of things to do a runner from at the minute, including the news which seems to revel in rising bills and high prices. Where this show excels is the comedy – Nickless is a pro and he has starred in so many pantomimes and like a good teacher, he shows everyone else how it’s done. His Smee is essentially him cracking jokes and being playful with the audience and he delivers Vaudeville style set pieces and he has you creasing up whenever he steps onto the stage.
Jason Manford’s experience of being in musicals such as Sweeney Todd, The Producers and Kander and Ebb’s Curtains, alongside his stand up routines, TV and recording work means that even though this is first panto – he is not really wearing an L plate. He knows how to draw the audience in and they fall for him, hook, line and sinker. Insert groan here.
A special mention must go to the ensemble who leap off the stage and bring the fun to stalls and beyond. Their marvelous moves and perma-grins are infectious.
The only downside is that the annual singalong on stage, involving kids in the audience who either want to holler out a tune or appear indifferent and too cool for school is not there this year. Maybe it will be back in 2023.
In the meantime, be prepared to be caught on camera, see the leads maybe address you personally when giving you a story recap, and most of all be prepared to have fun. Because if you surrender to the joys of the return of the panto without masks and restrictions, The Pantomime Adventures of Peter Pan will lift your spirits and leave you smiling so much, you will look botoxed for days.
The Pantomime Adventures of Peter Pan is at the Opera House until 31st December and can be booked here.