Peter Pan

Children in the audience make themselves at home on the stage of the Dukes' annual Christmas show

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As someone more comfortable reviewing the action than being part of it, I can hand on heart say I’ve never been to the theatre with the intention of stealing the show. So I’ll be upfront with sincere apologies to the five Peter Pan cast members. This year I brought nearly as many children as there were actors and, clearly, they thought this was their night to shine.

There were numerous instances of uninvited participation. My seven year old comforted Tinks (played gender fluid in a nod to panto traditions and 21st century sensibilities by a brilliant Jason Patel) when they were feeling particularly down about their fight with Peter; at another point my five year old pointed out to Peter (a boyishly charming Gareth Morgan) that fairies are real because of the tooth fairy, “obviously”; and my eight-year-old companion laughed so hard at one point she toppled head first onto the stage (Pan is performed in the round and we had front row seats).

The cast were thankfully gracious and the audience obviously entertained by their childish enjoyment – compliments from audience members afterwards left them feeling as though they had really been a part of it, much to my relief. I’m worried the fact they’ve been credited in reviews will be too much for their egos though.

But if my kids feel a bit too at home at the Dukes, the theatre only has itself to blame. It’s credit to the brilliant calibre of shows it continues to turn out that have had us returning each Christmas since they were tots. When Sarah Punshon came on as Dukes artistic director in 2017 she brought with her a change in approach to the annual Christmas show. Traditional retellings of tales such as Pinocchio and Beauty and the Beast allowed young audiences to see the darker aspects of familiar tales, but the Punshon-directed Aladdin last year had a healthy dose of Christmas cheer and comedy while retaining its subversive edge. That was a script from kids’ theatre veteran Mike Kenny but this year Pushton took on the writing as well as directing.

Perhaps it was the children being at the perfect ages this year that made it extra special, but Peter Pan was the best one yet. The talented cast members took on three to four roles each and barely stopped for breath. Helen Longworth (who plays Wendy’s single mum and Captain Hook as well as a lost boy and a fairy) and Dora Rubinstein (Wendy as well as a lost boy and a fairy) are both returning actors from last year’s show who delivered standout performances. Longworth’s expressive face was particularly convincing in emotional moments while Rubenstein got to showcase her yogic credentials with some exciting aerial antics. The cast is completed by Henry Mettle (Jack/Smee/extra and fairy) whose voice stood out in the brilliant numbers written by talented Newcastle duo Claire Tustin and Ziad Jabero.

A clever and deceptively simple set design, equally imaginative use of costumes, and slick sound and lighting trickery rounded off this hilarious and wholesome family show, which is not only relatively inexpensive but also charitable. The children’s participation reached a peak with my seven year old joining the cast on stage alongside two other children from the audience as little pirates – this time, mercifully, invited.

In next week’s Big Issue North there’s a full round-up of Christmas family theatre across the north of England. If you’re planning to see Peter Pan at the Dukes before 5 January, you can make a day of it and visit neighbouring Dalton Square, where you can ice skate around Queen Victoria and warm yourself up with a hot chocolate

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