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Peter Pan

by on 9 December 2021

Upcycled storytelling

Peter Pan

by Jonny Danciger

OSO Barnes, until 19 December

Review by Matthew Grierson

Once the first joke is told about Captain Hook’s lost appendage, Smee hands – sorry, passes – a clipboard to one lucky mum so she can count the manual puns. She should have been given a bingo card to mark each panto tradition, though, so capably does this Peter Pan fulfil the audience’s expectations.

For reference, Mum counts a dozen plays on ‘hand’, though she must be enjoying herself too much to keep track as I’m certain there were more. While that figure may be in dispute, there were definitely only six cast members, though they achieve the impressive feat of seeming like a full and much better-resourced troupe. Of course, Mr and Mrs Darling (Sonny Pilgrem and Maddy Page) double as Smee and Captain Hook respectively, and fruity narrator Louis Pieris is ‘coerced’ into donning the crocodile skin later on. But all six players muck in to act, sing, dance, stooge and shift the scenery.

They’re a dirty half-dozen, too. Or rather, Gavin Fleming as fairy Tinker Bell has sufficient innuendo for the entire cast, and gets surprisingly near the knuckle (another hand pun? Tick.) To fill the gap – so to speak – of a conventional dame, the script leans hard – ahem – into fairy jokes, most of which are very funny. Thankfully these are played over the heads of the kids to the back row where myself and at least two other adults are sat to chortle shamefacedly.

Even when it’s not actually musical, Jonny Danciger’s script sings, ringing with alliteration, rhyme and quickfire verbal slapstick, which must help the cast keep the pace. The fairy – sorry, fairly – topical conceit is that travel back to Neverland is forbidden, because the Pixie Parliament has placed the notional nation on its Red List. As a result, Tink – or Twink, as s/he styles her/himself – is forced to transport Peter and Wendy to the Netherlands instead: ‘Second Eurostar on the right, delayed until morning!’

The travel ban is an inspired move that means Hook and Smee end up pirates on a narrowboat rather than a frigate, while Tink her/himself is allowed some lewd allusions – allewdsions? – to lost boys and dreamy experiences in Amsterdam. The boat is also hijacked as a vehicle (sorry) for some local joking about Barnes Bridge’s continued closure.

It’s not all smut and wit, mind, and the biggest portion of the target audience is engaged with the usual call and response of ‘Behind you!’ and ‘Oh no you aren’t!’ In one charming moment near the top of the show, Wendy seeks to prove the power of story by calling on the audience for elements to invent a story of her own. One wean near me therefore commands the opportunity, whether mistakenly or mischievously, to commission a tale about a crocodile called Peter Pan who lives in the forest.

To her credit, Kaitlin Reynell as Wendy does not bat an eyelid and weaves a swift eco-parable from the child’s unexpected recycling of the story material. In a pleasant echo of this later in the evening, Pieris’s narrator rehearses the value of story and live theatre at this time of year, as though the past 18 months hadn’t happened. Well, this is a tale about dreams coming true after all.

To get the plot proper under way, Wendy lures Maddy Page’s chirpy Peter (who couldn’t help reminding me of Jodie Whittaker’s upbeat Doctor Who) to her room by capturing his shadow. There then follows a lovely bit of business where Page chases a figure clad in a black body stocking around the stage, before Wendy eventually manages to stitch it to the boy’s feet. It’s an inspired bit of staging.

Indeed, the production is thrifty and inventive throughout. Tink’s magic scroll is a rococo bit of surtitling that offers not only lyrics but also 404 error messages in their thwarted bid to get back to Neverland. When they do (spoilers) actually make it home, the vista flies in on a curtain, adeptly painted like the flats by Emma Turner.

At this point, Pieris’ narrator is forced to assume the role of the crocodile, so not only does he don a cosy reptilian onesie, he also sports a pair of crocs (natch) and a massive, Flavor Flav-style clock around his neck to signal the tick-tock that creeps up on Hook. Meanwhile, the sea in which he pursues her is effectively a massive blue canvas barber’s cloak, through which the villain’s head pops as she ‘swims’ to her doom.

This being panto, though, there’s a happy ending (‘House!’). Wendy pairs with Peter, Smee with Tink and Hook with Croc to belt out a seasonal bit of Mariah Carey, and then everyone is back to Barnes well in time for sweet dreams.

Matthew Grierson
December 2021

Photos © Giacomo Giannelli

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