Get hooked by Peter Pan: review of this year's panto at Sunderland Empire

Peter Pan is putting the pan in panto this year with a soaring spectacular at Sunderland Empire.
Josh Andrews flying high as Peter Pan and Ruth Betteridge as WendyJosh Andrews flying high as Peter Pan and Ruth Betteridge as Wendy
Josh Andrews flying high as Peter Pan and Ruth Betteridge as Wendy

With more adventure than your average panto, this year’s festive offering whisks audiences from a rainy Sunderland to a tropical Neverland in this timeless tale of the boy who never grew up.

From the high-flying hero, played with hands-on-hips gusto by Josh Andrews, to the amazing acrobatics of Hook’s plonker pirates, this is a show packed with energy.

Richard McCourt as Smee and Jamie Lomas as Captain HookRichard McCourt as Smee and Jamie Lomas as Captain Hook
Richard McCourt as Smee and Jamie Lomas as Captain Hook
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Some impressive staging of moonlit rooftops sets the scene in London where we first meet the eponymous leading man as he swoops through the nursery window of the Darling home to capture the imaginations of Wendy, Michael and John, following a lively rendition of Come Alive from the Greatest Showman.

Josh, who’s trod the boards on the West End stage, creates a real air of believable magic as he teaches the siblings to fly and transports them to his home of pirates, ticking crocodiles, mermaids and, of course, his arch nemesis Captain Hook.

They’re welcomed to the island by The Lost Boys who are played with a great cheekiness by youngsters from Northern Star Theatre Arts as they enter the stage to the tune of Duran Duran’s The Wild Boys.

They’re full of mischief as they set out to outwit Hook and his cronies. You’ve got to hand it to Jamie Lomas, of Eastenders, Hollyoaks and I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here fame, he’s a great baddie. He’s no stranger to stepping into the bad guy’s shoes and he has a commanding presence as the one-handed captain of the Jolly Roger.

Melanie Walters as PersilMelanie Walters as Persil
Melanie Walters as Persil
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And he’s got a real boom to his voice as he aims to clip Peter’s wings while dodging the crocodile (one of the best panto animals I’ve seen) who ate his hand.

Hook’s side-kick Smee is played by Richard McCourt, who is a dab hand at entertaining children thanks to playing one half of Dick’n’Dom for the past two decades, and he brings the duo’s trademark silliness to the show with plenty of bogies, flatulence and slap-stick. Top tip: audiences in the stalls should pack their macs for Hook and Smee’s watergun scene.

The trio of pirates (Alex Middlebrook, Morgan Chambers and William Beckerleg) also shone for me with their backflips, great comic timing and spot-on dance moves. Look out for their trampoline scene which makes you out of breath just watching.

More magic is provided by Melanie Walters who’s both funny and charming as Persil the mermaid and Mrs Darling. She’s swapped the Welsh valleys of Gavin and Stacey for the shores of Neverland, bringing with her some fishy puns.

Josh Andrews as PanJosh Andrews as Pan
Josh Andrews as Pan
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This is a show packed with strong female characters, rather than the more stereotypical panto princesses. Wendy is played with real vigour by Ruth Betteridge.

Meanwhile, Tinkerbell is injected with more feistiness than usual by Lauren Ferreira who’s great fun to watch as she twirls about the stage on rollerskates. Hats off too to Tiger Lily, played by Inez Mackenzie, who’s also got some guts.

As well as the usual panto lines - it wouldn’t be panto without them - there’s some great songs in the show, especially Defying Gravity from musical Wicked which closes act one and sees Pan flying up into the Gods over the audience, which had the younger ones captivated.

There’s also the most popular song of the year, Baby Shark, as well as less annoying pop songs such as Jonas Blue’s Rise and George Ezra’s Paradise all delivered with a panto twist, which all makes for a jolly good night out on the Jolly Roger.

Jamie Lomas as HookJamie Lomas as Hook
Jamie Lomas as Hook

•Peter Pan is at Sunderland Empire until January 6.