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The last time I reviewed a John Doyle/Sarah Travis collaboration, I hated it and slated it. So it was with some trepidation that I approached their take on Peter Pan at the Oxford Playhouse.
But oh, what a difference!
This production is sometimes Peter Pan the Musical, sometimes Peter Pantomime, but always full of energy and fun.
The legendary actor’s response to seeing a rival in action is “I could do that.” But when you get ten actors who can act, sing, dance and play musical instruments (some of them several musical instruments), the words stick in your throat. Not only that but half of them have university degrees — and at least three of them can fly.
So let’s take talent for granted, and talk about the show.
There can be few people who don’t know the basic story of Peter Pan. But, just in case, it’s the story of a little lost boy who never wants to grow up. He visits young Wendy Darling, shows her and her two younger brothers how to fly, and takes them to Neverland, where they fight against the evil Captain Hook and his band of pirates, eventually triumphing (with the help of a crocodile), before coming home again — together with all the lost boys they’ve rescued.
As a story, it’s got everything: a cunningly-crafted fantasy world, innocence versus experience, good versus evil — and a healthy dose of Boys’ Own-type adventure, with a joyful outcome.
John Doyle’s adaptation and direction does justice to every one of these elements.
I’ve acted on the Playhouse stage many times, and even directed on it a few times — but this time I barely recognized it. Every inch of space was taken up with a hugely inventive set (designed by Liz Cooke). And it was huge in more ways than one: everything was super-lifesize, the way it might appear to a child. A towering chest of drawers, a kingsize tin bath, a massive fireplace, all doubling as cliff faces, boats, entrances and so on in Neverland.
From a technical point of view, it’s an extravaganza. Everything from traps to trapezes, gauzes to gobos, smoke, a revolve, and a self-opening window. And not only extravagant, but slick into the bargain. I especially liked the final disappearance of Captain Hook into the bowels of the crocodile (and the stage).
Particularly effective were the Brechtian devices of having an actor carrying on the 8-foot plastic crocodile, and an actress drifting around with a tiny bell to represent the invisible Tinkerbell. Reminiscent of His Dark Materials at the National, it’s amazing how quickly the mind accepts the convention.
And there are no recorded SFX for this company: the creaking lid of a treasure chest, the ticking of the crocodile’s swallowed clock, the distant beat of tom-toms are all created on musical instruments, on-stage by the actors.
Sarah Travis’s score is constantly up-beat, the tunes are catchy and modern, and the arrangements — frequently featuring half a dozen or more musicians — lend plenty of depth to the on-stage action. No choreographer is credited in the programme but, with this company, it wouldn’t surprise me if they worked out the routines themselves.
As always with Peter Pan, two actors steal the show. Justine Koos is a perky urchin of a Peter, vacillating between cockiness and unsureness. Simon Walter brings gravitas to Mr Darling and a leering pantomime villainy to Captain Hook. Both are at ease with the audience, whipping up waves of cheers and boos, and even eliciting the traditional ‘Behind you!’
Like Gloucester in King Lear, the part of Wendy needs a generous actor: she bears the show on her shoulders, while giving all the attention (and the best lines) to her colleagues. Joanna Hickman brings both warmth and firmness to her portrayal.
I was particularly taken by the cool grace of Helen Anderson-Lee as Mrs Darling and the bearer of Tinkerbell’s bell. Her talents on the piano and various other instruments were a constant thread throughout the show. Michelle Long is a forthright and energetic Tiger Lily, and Jon Trenchard cleverly retains elements of the dog Nana in his soppy Smee the pirate.
Simon Tuck, Emma Corelle, Adam Stone and Jez Unwin make wonderfully unfrightening pirates. When they prepare the Lost Boys for walking the plank, you get the impression that the ‘drink’ at the end of it is more likely to be a glass of lemonade than the sea.
And I mustn’t forget the youngsters who play John, Michael and the Lost Boys. There are two teams of eight, playing alternate nights. Assuming that the Red Team is as natural and confident as the Blue Team that I saw (and why would anybody not?), then there’s obviously a lot of acting talent available in Oxford.
All in all, a magical recreation of a favourite tale that left the audience — children and adults alike — glowing with delight as they left the theatre.
And, cynical old hack though I may be, I waved my hands in the air and joined in the Clapping Song. Yes, it really was that good.
Peter Mottley © 2004
Originally published on R&V 23-12-04
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