Peter Pan Goes Wrong

Peter Pan Goes Wrong (Theatre Royal, Brighton, until Saturday, April 25th)

Public health warnings need to be posted outside all theatres being visited by Peter Pan Goes Wrong. Audiences could well do themselves a serious injury through laughing uncontrollably for two hours.

Following hot on the heels of the phenomenally successful The Play That Goes Wrong on tour and in the West End, Mischief Theatre has come up with a new challenge for the hapless Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society – a glorious panto adaptation (or should that be “Christmas vignette”?) of J. M. Barrie’s classic children’s story Peter Pan.

The merriment starts well before the curtain goes up, as cast members mingle in the auditorium, inviting audience members to take on such minor tasks as flying operator and stage technicians. Even the programme and its corny Cornley contents start the titters off early. But this is only the merest of rib-tickling hors d’oeuvres compared to the disaster that unravels as the am dram company’s production gets under way.

Everything that could go wrong – and several more besides – does go wrong, from collapsing scenery, forgotten lines (the solution of giving the offending actor an earpiece fails spectacularly when  the transmitter begins to broadcast on other radio frequencies), and the failure of Peter’s flying harness to exploding lights, an out of control revolving stage, and even near death experiences.

Just when you are weeping into your handkerchief with laughter at one set of mishaps, along come a dozen more with the result that by the end of possibly the best night out you’ll ever have at the theatre every muscle aches and stomachs groan in pain as hilarity takes a firm hold. When you gasp for breath and every sinew begs for relief, the hard-working cast batter down your resolve with more and more comedy gems.

Writers Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields have truly crafted a comic masterpiece, rich enough in itself to please all-age audiences to the nth degree. But seasoned and cynical theatre-goers will  also delight in the fine comic timing, the exquisite ensemble playing, the well-tuned farce, and sheer all-round professionalism brought together to create such an imaginative and enjoyable piece.

This is no foolish plot-light farce with outrageous over-acting and physical comedy replacing story development: every character is well-rounded, every performance bursting with energy, every line and chaotic scene played out to its inevitable conclusion. And when the audience joins in – as they surely will – the actors are confident enough to deal with every heckle, guffaw, hiss, and cheer.

On the surface the play is simply about an ambitious amateur company and its vain attempts to stage a seasonal entertainment well beyond the means of the collection of divas, old-timers, squabbling directors, and starry-eyed thespians. It could so easily be a carbon copy of the likes of Noises Off, but Michael Frayn’s play barely scratches the surface of what director Adam Meggido and a stunning cast manage in Peter Pan Goes Wrong. In the middle of it all, we quickly get to the heart of what motivates the members of the am dram company and there’s some neat little subplots along the way; even a love story adds to the disorder.

Laurence Pears is tremendous as a barely controlled director who also gets to play Mr Darling and Captain Hook, twitching with simmering fury as the audience dares to treat his masterwork as a mere pantomime, forlornly trying to keep his head while all about him are losing theirs, silent seething becoming ever more vocal. The scene in which the villainous pirate tries to poison Peter’s medicine is practically a masterclass in comic timing and acting. His co-director (or, as Laurence would have it, assistant director) Robert Grove is played to perfection by Cornelius Booth, called upon to play an unintelligible pirate with equally incomprehensible parrot as well as the unlikely young Michael Darling, complete with bushy beard and pink romper suit.

Matt Cavendish may well be the theatrical world’s  favourite crocodile, shadow and Nana the dog, roles played by his character Max thanks to his uncle’s generous sponsorship of the production (deservedly the audience loved him, not least when he had his chance to take the spotlight from an injured co-star), while Alex Bartram’s swashbuckling Jonathan/Peter Pan  deserves an Olivier Award for flying harness acting beyond the call of duty.

Leonie Hill plays Sandra/Wendy like Kate Bush on artificial stimulants, while Naomi Sheldon’s Annie becomes more and more manic as she switches between several other roles in seconds including Mrs Darling, maid Lisa and Tinker Bell (the traditional “Do you believe in fairies?” scene proves truth is stranger than fiction for her poor character).

There are also wonderful performances from James Marlowe as Dennis/John, nervously relying on an unreliable form of prompting; Harry Kershaw as Francis/narrator with more than a sprinkling of magic dust; Rosie Abraham as a stammering Lucy/Tootles who breaks her leg within seconds of her first appearance; and Chris Leask as seriously undervalued and reluctantly heroic stage manager Trevor.

Mayhem grows fast until the climactic scene where the set revolves out of control, spinning slower then faster as the actors struggle to continue – just one highlight in a packed production from which it is hard to pick out favourite moments or performances as everything shines. 

There is far more to this production than just clever slapstick. This is a piece of art that manages to depict the reality of many am dram groups with a knowing wink and almost as an aside, while providing entertainment requiring perfection in working together,  lines and moves choreographed to the split second to avoid genuine injury or disaster, and above all an unforgettable ‘mess’ of the very highest order.

Neverland has never been so chaotic. Miss it at your peril.