Three cheers for David Suchet, making his panto debut at the age of 77. Three boos for the Bristol Hippodrome panto he’s starring in, though. Having hooked us in with the promise of seeing him as Peter Pan’s nemesis, it struggles to capitalise on his talent and mires him in a spectacle so mindless it leaves its audience’s little grey cells dwindled.
There’s a due gag about him filling in for Ian McKellen – who has boldly led the way for “name” classical actors treading the panto boards – but as he waits in the wings, and slogs through umpteen shows, I suspect Suchet might wonder why he didn’t read the small-print, or script, more closely. He appeared as the narrator on Mischief Theatre’s spoof Peter Pan Goes Wrong for the BBC. There aren’t mishaps here, but as a way of honouring his urge to perform to the multitudes it feels like a misstep.
The grown-ups – those who know, and even love, him as TV’s Poirot, the best incarnation of Christie’s Belgian detective that ever was – are at least rewarded with a glib in-joke. In a second-half stroke of total but inevitably tolerated contrivance, his Captain Hook reveals himself as a moustachioed character of a different kind: the disguised “Hercule”, twin brother of the dastardly, deceased James. The actor removes his black ringleted wig to reveal a bald pate, dons a hat and overcoat and reaches for a cane, that familiar ITV theme tune drifting through the auditorium. He then mincingly steps forward to declare his dainty conclusion: that his brother “was an out-and-out scoundrel whose heinous behaviour caused his end so very grisly”. After a lavatorial gag involving “oui, oui”, off he traipses, we’re told, for a meal at “Yo Suchet!”
Really, though, his Poirot should assemble the creative team to solve the murder of JM Barrie’s beloved tale, and identify the main culprit. Is it the adapter, Alan McHugh? Barrie must be spinning in his grave given how little that made the Darlings’ adventure in Neverland heart-racing and poignant has been retained; the set-up scene in the nursery is minimal, and the return, with its farewell to childhood and to the boy who refuses to grow old, has been junked. You expect interpolated material in the ‘panto’ version but not the eradication of the source material’s charm.
Perhaps the director Jonathan Kiley should be made to walk the plank – the evening does shimmer and glitter but it’s also as deafening as a Benidorm nightclub; there’s not enough flying, the crocodile is a let-down, just a pair of jaws rising up from the orchestra pit, and the infantile badinage of West Country comic Andy Ford’s rasping Smee is over-indulged. On the plus side, the fabulously attired Ceri Dupree as the dame, Mrs Smee, is a dependable hoot (“This is my Brexit dress – you want me out of it, but when I am, you’re not sure”). Faye Tozer (from the pop group Steps) twinkles as Mimi the Mermaid and ends the night by singing Tragedy but, ahem, I wouldn’t advise hastening steps to see this.
Until 31 Dec. Tickets: atgtickets.com%n