Tag Archives: J M Barrie

With Flying Colours

PETER PAN IN SCARLET

New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Tuesday 26th July, 2016

 

Theresa Heskins adapts and directs this world premiere: the first stage version of the ‘official’ sequel to J M Barrie’s classic.  The novel, by Geraldine McCaughrean, takes Barrie’s world and characters and moves them on, away from the innocent times of playing in an Edwardian nursery.  The world has changed.  It’s not so much that Wendy and John have grown up but the world has too.  The First World War has changed and tainted things forever.  It is suggested that their brother Michael (the little one with the teddy bear) was killed in action.

And so the entire piece is permeated with sadness and a sense of loss, alleviated in part by the exuberance of the cast and the infectiously jaunty score by composer and M.D. (and genius) James Atherton.  1920s jazz informs the aesthetic and members of the cast reveal themselves to be virtuosi on a range of instruments.  Jonathan Charles’s Slightly gives a star turn on the clarinet – and special mention goes to Natasha Lewis for her raunchy trombone.

The plot is action-packed.  Wendy and John recruit some of the Lost Boys for a return visit to Neverland, following a series of nightmares.  The play opens with one of these, a recap of the demise of Captain Hook – Andrew Pollard has never looked more dashing and debonair.  In order to fly back, the grown-up children hatch a fairy (New Vic favourite Michael Hugo being delightfully funny as Fireflyer) for a handy supply of dust, and don their own children’s clothes in order to be children again.  A strong theme is that clothes make man – you are what you wear, as Gok Wan would have it.  There is some truth in this idea of life as a game of dressing-up, but I’d add that it’s also how people react to the clothes we wear that shapes our behaviour. When Pan puts on an old red pirate coat, he takes on the unpleasant characteristics of his former nemesis.  Clothes make Pan.

Isaac Stanmore (formerly Dracula and Robin Hood) returns as another New Vic leading man and brings out Pan’s never-ending supply of youthful energy.  He also delivers the changes to Pan’s nature as the coat takes over, becoming a nasty-minded tyrant before our very eyes.  Perry Moore is also a returning player; this time he’s John, shedding his grown-up stuffiness for a more boyish, adventurous personality.  Rebecca Killick’s Wendy is fun and assertive without being the bossy little madam she is sometimes shown to be.  Suzanne Ahmet cuts a dash as Tootles, a doctor who has to borrow his daughter’s clothes – notions of gender identity are teased at – and Mei Mac exudes energy as Tinkerbell.  The mighty Andrew Pollard creates a creepy and compelling presence as the friendly but sinister Ravello, wraithlike and charming.

The whole cast must be absolutely knackered, with all the running around, physicality and, of course, the flying – here portrayed by climbing up lengths of silk and bringing to mind the New Vic’s production of Peter Pan a few years ago, which was the most beautiful and moving version of the story I have ever seen.  There are moments of beauty here too, with the silks, the sails, the lighting (designed by Daniella Beattie) – and I am struck by how bloody good the sound design is; James Earls-Davis works wonders in this arena setting to give us a cinematic soundtrack that is finely focussed, helping us to follow the action, which at times can be very busy and frenetic.  Theresa Heskins employs some of her trademark tricks – maps are ‘thrown’ across the stage, fights are carried out across a distance, softening the violence in one way, making it all the clearer in another – and her well of theatrical invention seems never to run dry.  The result is a charming if melancholic experience, rich with ideas and played to perfection.  The show only suffers from a lack of audience familiarity with the material.  We wonder where it’s going rather than wonder at it.  But then, Peter Pan was new once too.

pan in scarlet

Suits you, sir. Ravello (Andrew Pollard) helps Pan (Isaac Stanmore) into his scarlet coat, while Fireflyer (Michael Hugo) looks on, aghast. (Photo: Geraint Lewis)

 

Advertisements

So Wrong It’s Right

PETER PAN GOES WRONG

The REP, Birmingham, Tuesday 27th January, 2015

 

This companion piece to the West End hit The Play That Goes Wrong is no less hilarious. We watch with growing marvel and delicious glee as the drama society from ‘Cornley Polytechnic’ plough through their production of the J M Barrie classic.

Most live performances have something that goes wrong – although the audience doesn’t notice most of the time. It’s part and parcel of live theatre: a cue could be missed, a prop might refuse to cooperate… Here, writers Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields, take all those hazards and cram them into a couple of hours of non-stop belly laughs. Scenery collapses, things get stuck or misplaced, and sometimes the sheer incompetence of the actors comes to the fore. Clumsiness and bad luck conspire to wreck the performance. Surprise follows surprise and there are moments of delicious expectation: you know someone’s going to come a cropper; it’s just a matter of time…

Because we know it’s all staged, there is a safe distance at which to enjoy people supposedly incurring terrible injuries. There is something inexorably funny about someone being whacked on the head with a plank. But you sit there thinking how many times can I laugh at this?

Many, many times, it turns out.

The writers are savvy enough to include other factors: the relationships between the actors also add to the catastrophe. There is much to enjoy here along with the relentless slapstick.

Laurence Pears is a hoot as ‘director’ Chris Bean, doubling as Captain Hook and an especially bombastic Mr Darling. His resentment at being treated like a pantomime villain seems heartfelt. ‘Co-director’ Robert (Cornelius Booth) the eldest member of the cast plays Michael, the youngest character. Of course it does – it’s this kind of ‘keep the show going at all costs’ silliness that both rings true and makes you cringe.  Booth also gives an unintelligble pirate whose boat-rowing ‘skills’ have to be seen to be believed.

Leonie Hill’s balletic and melodramatic Wendy overacts and postures, regardless of the demands of the scene. It’s a well-placed parody of the mannered actress, where technique overrides talent. Harry Kershaw’s Mr Smee is an object lesson in lack of stage presence.

Alex Bartram’s Pan battles bravely – not against Hook – but with the technology that is meant to keep him aloft. It’s physical comedy with the added peril of gravity – and there are many good gags involving him crashing into things.

Director Adam Meggido does not let up on the action for a minute. Somehow the chaos prevailing on the stage is choreographed to reach a climax. It’s a dazzling display of skill and focus – never mind the amount of energy expended by the cast.

What emerges is more than a couple of hours of laugh-out-loud fun. Yes, there is the ‘show must go on’ philosophy taken to the extreme, but the show is also a metaphor for the indomitable human spirit. When all around is falling apart, the actors pull through by pursuing their common goal. We should take heart from that whenever the news makes us feel like the world is fast-tracking its way to hell.

Laurence Pears showing bottle as Captain Hook.  Oh yes he is.

Laurence Pears showing bottle as Captain Hook. Oh yes he is.


PC Pan

WENDY & PETER PAN

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 15th January 2014

Ella Hickson has adapted J M Barrie’s classic tale for this family-oriented fare – giving us a straight play rather than yet another pantomime version.  Giving Wendy first billing in the title sets the tone: this is an updated version in terms of content if not setting.  There are no mermaids, no what would have been called ‘Red Indians’ – instead we get Tiger Lily as an urban Amazon warrior… Wendy (an earnest Fiona Button) serious and bossy even when she’s supposed to be having fun, asserts herself, learning to go beyond the expectations of her gender imposed on her by a patriarchal society.  Well, good for her.  It just seems a little laboured at times.

Where this production works best is when J M Barrie’s hand is still detectable.  The plot structure is unaltered, although there is the addition of a fourth Darling child whose demise in the early moments of the play is excellently handled and very moving.  Kudos to actor Colin Ryan who establishes a likeable character in a few deft strokes.  The story becomes Wendy’s quest to get her lost boy brother back, blaming herself for his illness – she neglected to sew a button on his pyjamas.

Where it falls short and breaks its own magic spell is with the dialogue which lurches from passable Edwardian English to contemporary slang.  Mrs Darling telling her husband to ‘bog off’ just ain’t right, however empowered and suffragette-y she might have become.

Peter Pan himself (Sam Swann) looks the part and moves with grace and energy, lifted and held aloft by a chorus of his ‘shadows’, a troupe of ghostly pallbearers.  Of course at times ropes and wires are involved but the workings of his flight are never hidden from us.  It’s about make-believe and imagination after all.  Some of his lines make you cringe.  I understand the updated dialogue might engage a young audience but it robs the play of some of its ‘otherness’ and magical qualities.

Charlotte Mills’s Tinkerbell is a big surprise, sounding like Kathy Burke with none of the finesse.  It is easy to imagine her propping up the bar at the Queen Vic, her tiny wings part of a raucous hen night uniform.

The crocodile is also a surprise – and a disappointing one.  Arthur Kyeyune is a skilled physical performer but his ‘crocodile’ is no more than a man in a top hat and long coat, creeping and stalking around, holding a clock.  Imagine Baron Samedi meeting Flava Flav.  As a symbol of Hook’s impending mortality he is rather disturbing (he is also the doctor who attends the dying Darling) but how can they not show us a crocodile?  Given the beauty and invention of the rest of Colin Richmond’s design work for this production, this is very unsatisfying.  On the other hand, Hook’s pirate ship is wonderfully impressive, a storybook galleon with a giant skull and skeleton hands as figurehead, gliding and revolving across the stage.

Hook (an enjoyable Guy Henry) is less aristocratic than he is usually portrayed.  There are hints at the tragedy of the human condition here as he despises and envies the lost boys their youth.  But without a proper crocodile, his demise is a letdown.  His interactions with Gregory Gudgeon’s Smee lighten the mood and break the fourth wall more effectively than Pan’s appeal for applause to resurrect his fairy friend.

Visually engaging, occasionally touching, Wendy & Peter Pan takes itself a little too seriously at times, too heavy-footed to really get off the ground.

Hook (Guy Henry) and Smee (Gregory Gudgeon) set sail.  Photo: Manuel Harlan.

Hook (Guy Henry) and Smee (Gregory Gudgeon) set sail. Photo: Manuel Harlan.


Peter Panto

PETER PAN

Theatre Royal, Nottingham, Sunday 15th December, 2013

 

Every time I go to see a version of Peter Pan, I am struck by how it’s invariably a mixed bag of a thing: neither a pure pantomime nor a ‘straight’ (for want of a better term) play.  The J M Barrie original acknowledges the audience and encourages participation (and woe betide any version that doesn’t invite us to aver our belief in fairies!).

This one begins, play-like, in the nursery – as opposed to the usual chorus of dancing villagers that begins most pantomimes.  When Peter Pan (Barney Harwood) flies in through the window, he also breaks the fourth wall, and we’re off.  Looking trimmer than ever (thanks to the rigours of his Blue Peter challenges) Harwood is effortlessly boyish and innocent and yet again I am reminded of the high quality of his singing voice.  Many a talent show wannabe would kill to have such a pop-star sound. He is not alone: Wendy (Hannah Nicholas), Tinkerbell (Isobel Hathaway) and Tiger Lily (Billie Kay) all have impressive voices – the songs are ‘originals’ and tuneful enough, but I like to hear familiar if incongruous numbers in a panto; something we can all sing along with.

Su Pollard, playing to a home crowd, is good value as magical mermaid Mimi, essentially playing the dame’s role.  It’s a pity she doesn’t get a range of outlandish outfits to show off but her off-colour jokes are aimed squarely at the older members of the audience are very funny.  She is beaten in the comedy stakes however by Ben Nickless as Mr Smee.  Nickless embodies the most traditional elements of the show, an old-school entertainer – we quickly overlook he is on the side of the baddie.

And what a baddie it is!  As Captain Hook, David Hasselhoff is remarkable.  If you think Americans don’t ‘get’ panto, think again.  He strides around like a colossus, thoroughly at home in his characterisation and a script that is riddled with Hoff-mockery.   Of course there are Baywatch and Knight Rider gags – how could there not be? – but The Hoff takes it all on the chin and somehow retains his dignity, his glorious, cheesy dignity.  I think I’m in love.

And so this particular version of Peter Pan rattles along at a fair pace, providing plenty to entertain everyone.  It hits all the plot points, entertains kids and adults of all ages, is camper than Christmas and leaves you with a big grin on your face.  Highly recommended.

Image

Hoff the Hook


Muses muse

PETER AND ALICE

Noel Coward Theatre, London, Saturday 18th May, 2013

 

The premise of John Logan’s new play is ‘what if the boy who inspired Peter Pan and the girl who inspired Alice in Wonderland met as grown-ups in real life?’  Logan gives us an answer to this ‘what if’ but also much more.

Peter Llewellyn Davies (Ben Whishaw) is a delicate man, scruffy in his tweed jacket and shapeless slacks.  He encounters Alice Liddell Hargreaves (Judi Dench) as they wait to take part in a talk or lecture about the books that sprang from their relationships with the authors.

As they wait, they compare experiences, what life has been like linked to their literary counterparts, and it soon becomes apparent there is a hint of Lady Bracknell to old Alice.  Peter stands his ground against her but it is clear he is uncomfortable.  Rather than extending this amusing interaction for the whole of the running time, Logan gives us something more fantastical.  The book-ridden waiting room flies away to reveal a set like a Victorian toy theatre.  Drawn figures inhabit the boxes: recognisable as Tenniel’s interpretations of Lewis Carroll characters; the backdrops bring to mind illustrations by the likes of Arthur Rackham and E. Shepherd.  The stage itself is a chess board of black and white squares.  Peter and Alice reminisce, challenging each other’s recollections, and here the play discusses the nature of memory.  “You’re remembering yourself as you are now,” Old Alice chides Peter, “only smaller.”  Memory is coloured by who we are now, what those past events have made us into.

Through their eyes, we meet the Reverend Charles Dodgson aka Lewis Carroll and J M Barrie.  The writers are portrayed as eccentric, enthusiastic coves, driven by loneliness.  Peter and Alice consider their relationships with the authors.  There is no case of molestation but they conclude it was some form of abuse, forcing a child to navigate a relationship for which that child isn’t ready.  A kind of emotional abuse, then.

The characters themselves appear; Peter flies in and Alice steps up from a door in the floor.  They are the fictionalised, immortal versions of the man and woman who grew up in their shadow.  They catalogue their adult counterparts’ flaws and failings with childlike directness.  Real world Peter and Alice have a love/hate relationship on the characters they inspired.

They discuss growing up and growing old.  It is absolutely fitting that two characters from everyone’s childhood expound on subjects that are universal.   And so the play moves from re-enacted biography and particular tragedy to something that has emotional resonance with everyone.

Peter Pan (Olly Alexander) and Alice in Wonderland (Ruby Bentall) portray the familiar figures with an almost inhuman quality – up against the ‘real world’ characters, they are understandably two-dimensional and flat.  Stefano Braschi is dapper and amusing as the upper class twit who struggles to propose to Judi Dench, and Nicholas Farrell and Derek Riddell bring more than eccentricity and creepiness to the writers Carroll and Barrie respectively in their sentimental attachments to their young muses.

Judi Dench is sublime as the acerbic Alice, putting aside her walking stick to become the very young girl again, shedding the authority and cantankerousness of age for the innocence and curiosity of youth. Her reaction to news of losing two sons in the First World War is heart-rending.

Ben Whishaw also excels as the damaged Peter, a sad and fragile figure, whose cares melt away when he relives happy moments from childhood.  But the loss of his parents and brothers has affected him irrevocably.   He’s the kind of man you want to shake one minute and sit him down and give him a hearty meal the next. Whishaw gives a poignant performance, thoroughly credible and endearing.

Childhood, says Alice, “gives us a bank of happy memories” against the sorrows that come when we are old.  If we’re lucky, old girl.

It’s a wistful rather than nostalgic production.  Melancholy runs through it but there is also plenty of humour in the dialogue and some rather lyrical and reflective passages.  It’s a strong contender for Best New Play in the theatre awards of my imagination.

Christopher Oram’s set design is evocative and entirely appropriate.  Michael Grandage directs with restraint, giving the script room to breathe.  There is, among others, a beautiful staged scene with old Alice as young Alice with Dodgson in his dark room, developing a photographic plate, immortalising her.  It encapsulates, defines and terminates their relationship – every part of the play operates on several levels: past and present seen through the prism of our own memory and affection for the literary characters.

We cannot help but be moved by the fate of the real-life Peter and Alice, and we leave the theatre with our own memories and sense of mortality pricked by this absorbing and rewarding piece of theatre.

Image

Watch your Ms and Qs: Alice Liddell meets Peter Pan (Judi Dench and Ben Whishaw)