I should have known this was going to be no ordinary Peter Pan. Director Sarah Punshon’s Williamson Park show this summer was no ordinary Three Musketeers, what with the cross-cross-dressing and the talking horse. So, are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.
Tinkerbell is as camp as a row of pink tents. Captain Hook is as swaggering a woman pirate as ever sailed the seven seas. Peter is a 12-year-old who has spent a lot of time at the gym. Wendy has a voice that could charm the birds out of the trees. And Smee, well Clive Rowe had better look to his laurels. And that’s it. Tempted? You should be.
Audiences have expectations. In Peter Pan, they are the flying and the crocodile. I’ve seen some elaborate solutions in my time, including the famous RSC production with a young Mark Rylance as Pan which had an incredibly expensive remote controlled flying system that sometimes didn’t work; and the production in the tent in Kensington Gardens which boasted an enormous crocodile puppet on wheels. But that thing Peter Brook talks about, the moment when water turns into steam, the moment of theatrical magic, is best achieved as simply as possible. And so it is here. The flying works nicely, and we actually see Hook swallowed by the crocodile. What could be more satisfactory than that?
Punshon has set herself another problem, which is telling the story with only five actors. To paraphrase Bill Clinton, “it’s the budget, stupid”. So, the Darlings are a single parent family and everybody doubles and triples like mad, from fairies to children to lost boys to pirates and back again. And it’s done with great verve and aplomb. The price you pay for this is the big emotional finish you can’t have when the lost boys come back to live with the Darlings, although there is a lovely fleeting moment when everyone is on stage and one of the characters asks where the lost boys are and they all look at each other in a panic. Great, sophisticated fun.
Difficult as I find it to believe, Jason Patel, who plays Tinkerbell and Tootles, is in his first professional job. Well done lad. Henry Mettle gives his Smee as a worried man, but Smee has less to do than usual. His Lost Boy, Extra – I won’t tell you the derivation, I’ll let you break your own heart – is a picture of lostness but he perks up enormously as a fairy. Dora Rubinstein is a thoroughly lovely Wendy and an enthusiastic Pirate, and has a show-stopping solo number which takes your breath away.
Meanwhile, Gareth Morgan as Peter has all the energy and confidence of a 12-year-old who knows he’s a leader of men. His bombast is extremely funny, but we know he hurts when he’s abandoned. And he’s a lot butch-er than his photo in the programme, ladies. And as for the fabulous Helen Longworth, her Captain Hook and Mrs Darling could not be more different. She’s vigorously terrifying as the first, and lovingly maternal as the second.
Did I say there were songs? Perfectly pitched post-punk mostly, and sound and light are used to great effect in what is quite a small in-the-round space. Punshon has assembled a great team. The design by Katie Scott effortlessly transforms before your very eyes, from bedroom to Neverland to pirate ship and back again, and the frocks are a quick change miracle.
Like The Three Musketeers, this is family theatre of the highest quality. Punshon really knows what she’s doing with this difficult form. You have until January 5 to see it.
By Chris Wallis, Theatre Editor
Main image: Peter Pan (Gareth Morgan) and Captain Hook (Helen Longworth
Peter Pan runs at Dukes Playhouse in Lancaster until January 5, 2018. For more information, and tickets, click here.