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The King’s Head’s Peter Pan (adapted and directed by the widow of Dan Crawford, the King’s Head’s onlie begetter, and starring his stepdaughter) is a miracle of compression. Not all the cast of 22 can fit on to the tiny stage at the curtain call. When fight scenes spill all over the auditorium, for once it feels not gimmicky but necessary.
This artistic shoehorning is most palpable in the production’s unique selling point: this is the theatrical premiere of the full score written by Leonard Bernstein; only five of the nine songs he wrote were presented in its 1950 Broadway run. Musical supervisor Mike Dixon has compressed Bernstein’s orchestrations into arrangements for a trio: piano, cello and flute/piccolo/clarinet.
Stephanie Sinclaire manages to compress J.M. Barrie’s play to make room for the songs in a two-hour show. The main Neverland section is exuberant, with Katherine Kastin as an ebullient Peter. But there is no countervailing sense of humanity among the “earthly” characters, and Lisa Holliman’s Wendy never balances her wide-eyed wonder with the down-to-earth practicality that makes her a surrogate mother to the Lost Boys and even Captain Hook’s pirates.
Nevertheless, it turns the most cramped theatre in London into a place of fun and fantasy for a brief while, and when Peter made his famous appeal to the audience to revive the dying Tinkerbell (Dixon’s little daughter Meg, with the cutest snub nose this side of the animated titles to Bewitched) by clapping our hands, even hard-bitten critics were applauding like billy-o.
The Hackney Empire describes its seasonal fare as “London’s favourite panto”, but how would this year’s offering, Cinderella, shape up in the absence of Clive Rowe, one of the country’s finest dames, who is currently playing (believe it or not) a tumble drier in Caroline, or Change at the National Theatre?
Writer/director Susie Mc-Kenna works in playful references to Rowe, with portraits of him as “the Queen” and a recorded message. I suspect Rowelessness may have influenced her choice of a tale where the grotesquerie is spread around. Of the Ugly Sisters, David Ashley’s Lucinda is not quite as repellent as Michael Kirk’s Lavinia. Tameka Empson as Cinders’ wicked stepmother, Countess Prunella, works the audience with customary flair but isn’t entirely at home as a baddie. As Baron Hardup, revered musical stager Peter Straker is no slouch at the comedy and gets a brace of musical numbers to belt out.
But the folk we have to cheer are underpowered. Donna Steele’s Cinderella is wholesome enough, but she sings through her nose. Steven Cree is radically miscast as Prince Charming: more like a Clydeside welder. A “Roaring Twenties” motif in the staging comes and goes gratuitously; musical sources range from Lemar to the commercial for Sheila’s Wheels motor insurance, with a quick burst of Fairy Godmother Janet Kay’s 1979 reggae hit “Silly Games”.
But the gags come thick and fast, along with all the traditional panto features; the transformation scene is nicely staged in black light, there’s a terrific animatronic flying horse, and a parody of the “spesh2” as Empson does some awful magic tricks. This is solid fare rather than classic Hackney: still salt of the earth, but not quite rough diamond.
‘Peter Pan’, King’s Head
Theatre, London N1. Tel. +44 20 7226 1916.
‘Cinderella’, Hackney Empire, London E8. Tel. +44 20 8985 2424.