Theatre in Wales

Theatre, dance and performance reviews

A bastion of traditional festive entertainment in Ceredigion

Peter Pan

The Aberystwyth Wardens , Aberystwyth Arts Centre , January 14, 2020
Peter Pan by The Aberystwyth Wardens The annual Wardens’ pantomime at Aberystwyth Arts Centre has, for over three decades, been a bastion of traditional festive entertainment in Ceredigion. For much of that time, particularly during the last decade, the Wardens have attracted and enjoyed capacity crowds and standing ovations, with an extraordinary percentage of tickets being sold almost a full year in advance. This year, I am joined by almost 300 other “Ceredigion Cretins” on a Sunday afternoon, to watch Peter Pan directed, as always, by Theatre Y Werin legend, Richard Cheshire.

There are many things that Cheshire brings to the Panto table apart from his reputation, experience and unrivalled vision, but perhaps the most important is a finger on the pulse of current trends, given his regular employment in professional productions across the UK. This is evident even before we’ve been asked to turn off our mobile phones, with large numbers of the audience either wearing pirate masks, or gleefully waving fairy wands (or doing both in my case – gotta get into the spirit of things right?!) A further example of the modern Panto way is evident at the start of the second half, with several of the characters mingling with the audience and recommencing the action before most of the audience have realised that the interval effectively came to an end several minutes earlier! All of this will not be every purist’s cup of tea but, personally, I have the utmost respect for any company that tries something new in the interests of pushing boundaries – even when that boundary represents bulldozing down any remnants of ‘the fourth wall’!

Reading through the cast list before the opening scene, it is clear that this year is very much one of transition for the Wardens. For a variety of reasons, the line-up does not include Panto stalwarts such as Carl Ryan, Theresa Jones, Marcus Dobson, Jordan Jones and Cheshire himself. In their place, Paul Dark makes his Wardens debut and there are significant ‘promotions’ for Jordan Ainslee-Rogers (who plays Peter Pan) and Lucille Richards, who plays Tiger Lilly. The net result of this personnel change is that the rhythm and hilarity of the show is not at the pace and level of previous years, although Ioan Guile, as ever, is a complete tonic. He works tirelessly and unselfishly as this year’s Dame (Nanny Myfanwy) to entertain the troops, and him dangling as a mermaid, “a fat flippin’ mermaid”, is my highlight of the whole pproduction. I don’t think it’s controversial to say that his on stage chemistry with Cheshire is sorely missed, as is Carl Ryan’s flamboyance and X-Factor, but, having said that, such is the maturity of the performances by the aforementioned youngsters and that of Maeve Courtier-Lilley, that it is clear that the Wardens are investing for the future and this can only be a good thing in the long run.

Speaking of personnel changes, Elinor Powell’s usual ‘all-star’ band is this year missing three of its regular members in Tom Sansbury, Gethin Jones and Rhodri Taylor, with all three undoubtedly busy performing for and with some of the top acts in the country, such is their status as (literally) some of the top musicians in the UK. However, in Llew Evans, Alex Shad, Harvey Hassan and Tim Williams (plus of course the usual tremendous tinkling of Louise Amery), Elinor has clearly put together a very special combination as this year’s completely live sonic accompaniment, is as good as anything I can remember since I started watching the pantomime back in the early 1980s. This is especially evident during the Snowman-esque projection that accompanies the opening flying scene, as Peter and the children make their magical way to Neverland.

With so many regular adult members of the company missing, there is far more participation than usual from the children’s cast – but they do not disappoint. During this particular performance, Iestyn Duggan plays Michael and Ioan Joshua Mabbutt plays John, and both do sterling jobs alongside Maeve Courtier-Lilly as Wendy. Maeve has been the Wardens’ leading lady for the last two years and it’s a shame that the role of Wendy doesn’t really lend itself to letting us hear more of her beautifully distinctive voice. Her performance is, however, typically flawless and she is undoubtedly one of the most important building blocks of a bright Wardens’ future.

The nursery scene where Pan first comes to the window is almost a play within a pantomime and Julie McNicholls is, as ever, instrumental in adding some cohesion to the production with her crucial scene-setting portrayal of Mrs Darling and later, as Wet Winkle the pirate. Alex Neil makes a polished cameo as her husband, Mr Darling…..but more about him later.

Taking the children (and ultimately the audience) to Neverland, is Ainslee-Rogers as Peter Pan himself. Having played smaller roles in previous productions, this was a big opportunity for this likeable young man, and he grabs it with both hands. As I have said in reviews of previous Wardens shows, large percentages of Panto audiences are far more interested in the sillier characters than the lead protagonists but this year, with nonsense levels significantly reduced, our main man very much needs to drive and lead the action, and Ainslee-Rogers does so with aplomb and infectious enthusiasm.

Apart from seasoned and reliable performers Nick Allen (Gentlemen Smarty) and Gerwyn Hughes (Blue Beard), the support cast are a youthful bunch which bodes extremely well for the health of board-treading in Ceredigion. From the Lost Boys to the Indian Braves, from the Dancers to pirates Connor Kinsley (Fishy Fingers) and Jac Spowage (Cecco), the stage is frequently filled with primary school, secondary school, college and University students, and the Wardens should be congratulated on showing such faith in the next generation. The large number of children in the company was arguably renowned choreographer Helen Jeckells’ greatest challenge – but it is also without doubt an indicator of her achievements given the complexity of the routines that the cast, of all ages, execute with gusto, precision and dexterity.

I mentioned Lucille Richards earlier but, her performance is worthy of another mention because in her role of Tiger Lilly, she shoulders significant responsibility and stage time, and her stunning voice is showcased perfectly by her leading a clever arrangement of The Lion Sleeps tonight, ably harmonised by Elin Rees (Pocahontas). The final member of this talented group of youngsters is the versatile Gruffydd Rhys Evans, who injects some welcome humour into every scene in which he features, and his confident leading of the ‘slosh scene’, belies his tender age and the audience appreciate his unbridled commitment to the cause.

As a professional entertainer, the audience are in safe hands with the aforementioned Paul Dark from his first scene to his last, and he thoroughly deserves his ovation at the end of the show. His singing voice is of a quality, volume and richness, that few pantomime-goers across the country will have heard for many a year, and I am sure that we will witness a sequel to this energetic inaugural performance in a Wardens ‘shirt’.

Finally, I must give a special mention to Alex Neil who plays Captain Hook. Actually, that is unfair – because he IS Captain Hook! This is clearly a role that Neil, in his ninth consecutive pantomime, has been waiting for…..and he nails it. He looks the part, he exhibits the perfect balance of dastardliness and vulnerability, and his voice seems to get better every time I hear him. It will be a sad day when he decides to break his unbeaten run, but I have a sneaking suspicion that he’ll be hitting double figures in next year’s production of Dick Whittington, and the Panto will be all the better as a result.

In summary, reviewing the Wardens is far harder than you might think because they have made a cast iron rod for their own backs, by being consistently absolutely bl**dy brilliant! They are an amateur company but do things to a professional level and so does one judge Peter Pan as a community production, or a professional one? Either way, they (and by ‘they’ I mean every single person mentioned in the credits in the programme) are once again, worth every single penny of the ticket price and if the worst criticism I can come up with is that they missed some phenomenally talented, experienced and side-splittingly funny actors, whilst building for the future by giving a host of exceptionally promising local youngsters the chance to shine in front of packed houses night after night…..then I’d say they’re still doing pretty darn well, wouldn’t you?

Reviewed by: Alan Rock

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