Pros: A good set with an awesome crocodile
Cons: The cast was asked to do just a bit too much
Peter Pan is a magical story, full of adventure, danger, beauty and longing. It opens up new worlds for its readers, making us wish that we too could fly, fight pirates and kiss Peter Pan. So I was disappointed to find Polka Theatre’s version of the story a little short on magic.
The first thing to be said is that this is an all-adult cast, and that the six of them work very hard. When they’re not acting they’re operating puppets, and four of the actors manage between them to play Mr and Mrs Darling, Captain Hook, all the pirates and all the Lost Boys. It is very impressive. I took my favourite six year old, and her first comment, in the interval, was ‘how do they manage to get changed so quickly?’ This implied some sense of wonder but not, perhaps, a really transporting theatrical experience. The other problem with having such a small cast is that compromises have to be made in the characterisation. Mr and Mrs Darling and Captain Hook look no older than the children, because they also have to play the Lost Boys. Mrs Darling, who should be fragrant and romantic, is instead gamine, in a dodgy wig, having been cast to play boys for most of the show.
The set is just as versatile as the actors. One side of the stage is taken up with an enormous pirate ship, which looms over the rest of the action and really comes into its own in the second half, with the lowering of the gangplank! On the other side is a large grandfather clock, whose resident crocodile looks like something sprung from the mind of Hunter S. Thompson. In between, we have a bedroom, a camp fire, a rocky spit and a few mermaids. But if the creative treatment is clever, it is also resolutely low-tech. None of the humans ‘fly’ at any point, and Tinkerbell is always accompanied by a handler. There is heavy reliance on dry ice to create atmosphere and on the audience to willingly suspend their disbelief.
What ultimately let this production down for me was not the smallness of the cast or the absence of technical wizardry, but the lack of emotion. Even in a children’s show, I expect a greater sense of peril; one doesn’t want to see children cowering under the seats, but they ought to feel a little frisson of fear. Captain Hook is camply menacing, and the pirates’ masks are pleasingly sinister, but none of it is the stuff of nightmares. Likewise, there is virtually no chemistry between Wendy and Peter. This Wendy is on the cusp of adolescence, but doesn’t seem to yearn for childish things or, by association, Peter Pan. The pirates are entertaining, but there are very few big laughs here.
As storytelling, this show does the job. It covers all the main events and gets us from childish bedroom back to childish bedroom, via Neverland. But the script rattles along at such a pace that it becomes rather functional. We miss out on those telling moments of conflict between Wendy, Peter and Tinkerbell. Indeed we don’t get much insight into any of the characters. Tinkerbell should provide comedy and pathos, but never really transcends her puppet form. Peter Pan, nicely played, with roguish charm, is dressed as a Teddy Boy. I suppose this refers to his vanity and self-assurance, but that theme is never developed either for character or for laughs. Compromises have to be made for a children’s show, in the interests of brevity and simplicity, but in this case, what has been sacrificed is some of the heart of this classic novel.
Director: Peter Glanville
Producer: Polka Theatre
Booking Until: 14 February 2015
Box office: 020 8543 4888
Booking link: http://polkatheatre.com/whats-on/peter-pan/performances