When they announced many months ago, that the Christmas play in the Royal this year would be Peter and the Starcatcher, my little heart was filled with joy because I had heard super things about this from its New York run a few years back. Huge kudos, of course, to the Royal and Derngate for producing its UK premiere. Not the first time they’ve done such a thing and I’m sure it won’t be the last.
Everyone knows the story of Peter Pan, but do you know how it was that Peter became Peter, and how he ended up with the lost boys? Or how Captain Hook lost his hand? Or how Tinkerbell was created? Or why there is a crocodile and how it swallowed a clock? Wonder no more. In this very cleverly created and imaginative story all is revealed.
You arrive at the theatre to see the Royal stage exposed in all its backstage rawness – ropes, bricks, painted signs – as well as an intriguing band layout fronted by a beautiful grand xylophone. All of a rush, the cast assemble on stage, Nicholas Nickleby-like, to begin the intricate exposition of the story of two associated ships, The Neverland and the Wasp, on a mission to take the Queen (God bless her)’s treasures to the distant country of Rundoon. The good Lord Aster is on board the Wasp to ensure the safe delivery of the trunk of jewels; he is father to young Molly, who is also sailing with her nana, the very alliterative Mrs Bumbrake. Subterfuge causes the precious cargo and a dummy cargo filled with sand to get mixed up; orphan boys are sold to one of the ship’s captains; Molly escapes her nana’s clutches and discovers one of the boys – named Boy, because he hasn’t a name – and after that, things start to get complicated. If I tried to write more of a synopsis we’d be here for hours.
Though linguistically brilliant, it’s a very densely written script and you really have to concentrate hard to understand everything that’s going on. In all honesty, I don’t think either Mrs Chrisparkle or I followed every twist or appreciated every nuance. For the most part, that’s not a problem, because you have a hugely committed cast who can carry you through any gaps in your understanding simply by their bright characterisation and lively ensemble work. It’s quirky, creative, and at times very surreal – as in the opening scene of the second act, where “starstuff” has done its magic and created a music hall act of mermaids; or on Fighting Prawn’s tropical island where every command or insult is an item of Italian food or drink. And I’d love to say that the show is a total success. Really I would, because the effort and commitment that’s put into this production is tangible. But, sadly, I can’t.
It’s one of those occasions where you find yourself really enjoying a play, engaged by the characters and their activities, tuned into their sense of humour, and laughing at all the jokes – but then you realise that no one else is laughing. Because, for whatever reason, the spirit and humour of this play just doesn’t transmit itself into the auditorium. It’s like someone has erected an invisible Brechtian barrier and it won’t get any farther. The cast are working their socks off for comic – and indeed emotional – effect, but for 90% of the audience (as it seemed to me) they may as well have been in another room. This must be so hard for the cast to keep going with all their enthusiastic on-stage shenanigans to get so little response back. There are a few adult-only lines (to be fair, probably fewer than in most pantos nowadays) for example where Mrs Bumbrake asks Alf, who has just admired her beauty, to accompany her to the ship’s lower decks with the words “take me below”. Mrs C and I sniggered with our best schoolboy smut-appreciation, but no one else did. And I think that’s the problem – most pantos/Christmas plays try to cater for both children and adults so that it is accessible to both, with enough fun and games to keep the youngsters entertained and enough wink-wink to keep the adults on song. But I think that of all the Christmas plays we’ve seen at the Royal this is the one that treads the most uneasy balance between its two target demographics. The publicity states it is suitable for 7+ but I think you would have to be considerably older to appreciate (and assimiliate) the adventures of the story. It simply falls between two stools.
We last saw Greg Haiste as a wonderfully warm Bob Cratchit in A Christmas Carol four years ago. This time he gives us a marvellous central comedy performance as Black Stache, channelling his inner Lord Flash-Heart. How tempting it must have been for him to come up with some Rik Mayallisms – there are a few opportunities for off-the-wall script adjustments so I really was expecting one. His comic gems flow so freely at times that it’s almost impossible to keep up with him. But we thought he was brilliant.
Molly is played by the spirited Evelyn Hoskins, once again portraying a thirteen-year-old, like she did in This Is My Family three years ago in Sheffield. She absolutely gets that girlish quality of boastful bossiness without ever becoming a stereotype or a Violet Bott-type pain in the rectum, and it’s a great performance. She is excellently matched by Michael Shea’s Boy – later to become Peter – with his brilliantly observed naïve other-worldliness, that conveyed possibilities of both heroism and “just wanting to be a boy”. Given this is his first professional stage engagement since leaving LAMDA I reckon he could be One To Watch. Together he and Ms Hoskins give us a touching insight into first love that is genuinely moving; I very nearly had something in my eye at one point.
It’s a brilliant piece of ensemble acting, although other stand-out performers (for me) were Marc Akinfolarin as the sometimes kindly, sometimes villainous Alf; Tendayi Jembere (whose strong performance we remembered in the riveting Mogadishu) playing a very as the pork-dreaming Ted; and Miles Yekinni as the whip-cracking Bill Slank; never has an actor looked as though he will corpse at any moment as Mr Yekinni does when he is cavorting in a mermaid’s outfit.
Despite the hard work that the audience has to put in to get the best out of the play, we both really enjoyed it; but were also fully aware that large numbers of our colleagues in the stalls didn’t seem too impressed. It wasn’t the warmest of receptions at curtain call, but I’d definitely recommend it, because you might, like us, find its quirkiness and surrealism irresistible. Even better, leave the kids at home and learn about young Peter without worrying whether they’re understanding any of it. It’s on at the Royal until 31st December.
P. S. We witnessed an unfortunate example of theatre rage being played out in the bar during the interval. A man was taking a couple to task because their children were flashing their light sabres during the performance and ruining his enjoyment of the play. I can understand his point. I can also understand theirs – in that the toys were bought at the theatre with the implicit understanding that they will be played with during the show. It’s an interesting question of theatre etiquette; the flashing toys wouldn’t have been half so noticeable in a proper pantomime. That said, the kids probably needed them to divert their attention from what they couldn’t understand was happening on the stage. I’d like to say that their discussion was polite and reasoned; I’d like to…; sorry about that.