Peter Pan, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds
A Neverland that needs a sprinkle of faerie dust
Tuesday 23 December 2008
Putting the jolly in the Jolly Roger and the treasure in our chest, Rachel Kavanaugh's production of Peter Pan is billed as a musical adventure. It's the Christmas show for everyone who has never really grown up, bringing out the child in all of us. Who could fail to be enchanted by J M Barrie's poignant tale of the Darling buds of Bloomsbury, Wendy, John and Michael, who – coming under the spell of Peter Pan – fly to Neverland for the adventure of their lives?
Produced last year for Birmingham Rep, this version of Peter Pan is the one by the composer George Stiles and the lyricist Anthony Drewe (creators of Honk!, based on the book by Willis Hall) which, created more than a decade ago for Copenhagen, had a not entirely successful concert outing in the Royal Festival Hall a few years ago. It may be a story tinged with nostalgia but the contemporary score, with around 20 songs and ballads, is timeless and tuneful, reflecting the characters and action with evocative instrumentation. With catchy musical numbers from the small pit band, under the direction of Stephen Ridley, the evening avoids descending into cloying sentimentality.
The Scottish novelist would have appreciated James Gillan's ambivalent Scottish Peter Pan, conveying a chameleon nature and decidedly chauvinistic egotism ("The Cleverness of Me"). He's captivating, whether daringly leading his band of Lost Boys or mischievously frightening the living daylights out of Captain Hook. It's an awkward role to get right, but Gillan carries it off nimbly.
Hook, a lugubrious David Birrell, sings his melancholy "It's a Curse to Be a Pirate with a Conscience" with a voice so alien it might be coming from the depths of the ocean. Less scary than some Hooks (and the darker production last seen at this address caused controversy for frightening younger children) he's nevertheless a commanding figure. Odd, then, you might think, that he should be so frightened of a green patchwork crocodile that pads across the stage more like the Darlings' shaggy nursemaid dog Nana. Croc may toc, but it's Nana who provides the "Aaaaw" factor.
Amy Lennox is a charming Wendy and the twist that reveals the mature narrator (Alwyne Taylor) to be the grown-old Wendy proves itself to be a surprisingly emotional moment – more for the grown-ups, perhaps, than the children. James Byng's John is suitably gawky, while the Michael I saw, eight-year-old Jake Abbott, had a touching vulnerability to him. The Lost Boys and the pirates are individually well characterised, adding lively good humour and knock-about physical agility and energy to Kavanaugh's well-paced production. Martin Callaghan's roly-poly, gormless Smee is a delight, his broadly accented pantomime-style contribution diluting the fear factor of the villainy on the high seas.
Peter McKintosh's sets are a treat, from the Edwardian London street scene and nursery to the lush Neverland coast and the pirate ship, while the costumes include kaleidoscopic colours for the Boys and exotic ethnic attire for Tiger Lily. The aerial work is solid rather than stunning, the highlight being the flight to Neverland in which Peter and the Darling children swish gently through a star-strewn sky.
The trickery of the laser-projected Tinkerbell is magically accomplished, although more could be made of Peter's desperate request to the audience to declare its belief in fairies and save her life after she has been poisoned. We should be on our feet championing her, but it's not so easy to care about a laserbeam. And whatever happened to walking the plank? Peter Pan is a streamlined show but a little staid, well-presented rather than invigorating, appealing without being spellbinding, and a shade long.
However, the night I attended was all the brighter for being "dress-up day". There were so many pirates on parade that I began to feel quite swashbuckled, while the tiny Tinkerbell next to me jingled so merrily that I thought I was developing tinnitus. When the audience brings its own seasonal magic, the relationship between stage and stalls takes off . But directors and adaptors can't rely on that.
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