Curve, Leicester, Wednesday 3rd October, 2012
This brand spanking new musical, fresh out of the box for its world premiere performance, tells the story of playwright J M Barrie and the events that led him to create one of the most enduring stories in popular fiction.
A shipload of money had been spent to bring this show to the stage. Production values are higher than the second star to the right. A lot of money and the latest technology to create a show that looks, sounds and feels old-fashioned – and I mean that in a good way.
From the beginning we are pulled into a world of storybook illustrations from the beginning of the 20th Century. It occurred to me – and it’s not an original thought – that the musical is a fantastical form to begin with – the conventions of bursting into song, of scenery gliding in and out – the characters are already in an enchanted world. So, when we enter the world of J M Barrie’s imagination, things had better be pretty spectacular or we won’t notice the difference.
Spectacular is only the half of it. There is a pirate ship that sails onto the stage to close the first act, that is absolutely beautiful. In fact, Scott Pask’s scenic design and Paul Wills’s costumes are superb, and the video projections by Jon Driscoll and Gemma Carrington enhance the action rather than distracting from it.
The songs (by Michael Korie and Scott Frankel) reminded me of Robert & Richard Sherman, the brothers who wrote so many wonderful hits for Disney: “When You Believe It” has more than a touch of Mary Poppins about it, and I was also reminded of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang several times before Barrie acquires his first automobile. In context and as a whole, the score is perfectly charming and the lyrics witty and character-revealing, but I wonder if any of the numbers will emerge as stand-alone hits. A musical needs at least one hit song.
The cast is perfect. Julian Ovenden is in fine voice as the naive Barrie, whose imagination is ignited when he meets the Llewellyn-Davies boys in Kensington Park. He strikes up a friendship with their mother, Sylvia (Rosalie Craig – who, like La Traviata, is able to belt out a good refrain while dangerously ill); the four boys are splendid. Harry Polden’s Peter is confident and touching, but all four of them strike the correct balance of charm and amusement.
Rob Ashford’s direction keeps us on the right side of sentimentality, bringing together technical elements and actors’ performances to create a sumptuous feast for the eyes and ears. For me the stand-out moment is a Jekyll and Hyde confrontation between Barrie and his darkest creation, Captain Hook (a delicious performance by Oliver Boot). They sing a duet and engage in swordplay in the perfect fusion of the real and the imaginary. It’s a glamorisation of what goes on in a writer’s mind, but brings some verve and vigour to the second act. As Tinkerbell is in the ascendancy, poor Sylvia’s light is dimming. Barrie’s marriage to Mary falls apart (Clare Foster is excellent as the long-suffering wife and music hall star). But while all this happening, something wonderful is being born.
It’s a long time before we see Peter Pan – there’s a pared-down synopsis of the play – and throughout the piece I was wondering if we would see any flying… Of course, we do – I won’t say when it happens but when it does, it’s exactly right.
It’s a dazzling, lavish production, amusing, touching and technically impressive. J M Barrie, presented here as a man-child who never grew up, not only creates his greatest work but also finds emotional fulfilment, a Lost Boy no more.
Judging from the way this Pan is handled, I’d say producer Harvey Weinstein has found gold.