Sometimes immersive theatre panders to our desires to enter the fantasy world we’ve been dreaming about. Secret Cinema’s USP is based around just that, most recently with a spectacular production of Moulin Rouge; The Guild of Misrule’s immersive The Great Gatsby plunged its audience into one of Gatsby’s wild parties, unfurling the novel’s progress in side rooms.
High hopes, then, for The Guild of Misrule and Theatre Deli’s NeverLand, based on the iconic work of J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan. But where The Great Gatsby had glamour, momentum and a coherent narrative, NeverLand has some sparkling moments strung out along a bewildering storyline.
Crucially, NeverLand is not an adaptation of Peter Pan, but rather a creative exploration of the life and works of J.M. Barrie, as well as the lives of three sons of the Llewellyn Davie family – George, Michael and Peter – who inspired his most famous work. It opens in a room with three beds, where George (Lucie Treacher), Michael (Casey Jay Andrews) and Peter (Michal Ish-Horowicz) are refusing to go to bed. Jim Barrie (Dominic Allen), a family friend since the death of their father, persuades them to go sleep by telling them stories about Peter, the boy who never grew up – complete with singing, living music and leaping about over the beds. So far, so biographical (if romanticised).
Neverland is essentially imagined into the central space – Lost Boys appear and begin excitedly talking to the boys about borrowing their mother, and share some tea (shots of whiskey, shared with some lucky audience members). It is at around this point, maybe twenty minutes in, that NeverLand begins to fragment.
This fragmentation is quite deliberate. Simran Hunjun’s mother becomes, after her death in the ‘real’ world, Captain Hook; George seemingly doubles up as Wendy in Neverland; Barrie himself wanders through the scenery, sometimes in Neverland, sometimes in the ‘real’ world, and sometimes narrating from the outside.
It is difficult to follow exactly what is going on, because the performers soon split up and begin acting separate scenes in the rooms outside of the central space – a mysterious pirate bar, a writer’s study, a sandy children’s den, a living room, all lusciously imagined but often barely lingered in or crowded with jumbled action. The Great Gatsby employed a similar multi-faceted, multi-stage technique, but it differs from NeverLand in one crucial aspect: The Great Gatsby had a familiar, and utterly clear, storyline. Without knowing much about the Llewellyn Davies family, it’s nearly impossible to keep abreast of the changes in NeverLand, partly because of the meta aspect of the storytelling – everything is both in Neverland and in the ‘real’ world.
Though the three boys maintain the diction and vocabulary of precocious pre-adolecents throughout the play, they are nevertheless taken through the biographical horrors of young adulthood – George killed in action during the First World War, Michael killed in a boating accident a month shy of his 21st birthday – and the sadness of outliving childhood fantasy (in 1960, Peter Pan’s namesake Peter Llewellyn Davies, aged 63, committed suicide by walking out in front of a Tube train). Those audience members following Barrie learn about the brother killed as a teenager in a ice-skating accident, the boy who never grew up, and his everlasting love for his mother. Around this confusing recounting, Neverland’s characters bump against reality, chatting to, flirting with and giving quests to audience members. NeverLand ends with a stirring five-minute speech from Barrie about youth and bravery which makes almost no sense if you have been following the wrong characters, and goes on for far too long.
NeverLand is not without its charms. As a musical, it is lovely, with some gorgeous numbers and impressive performances. Simran Hunjun’s dual role as Sylvie Llewellyn-Davies and Captain Hook is baffling but showcases her sweeping dramatic range and superstar voice; Humphrey Sitima is brilliant as Curly, a guitar-playing, rapping, singing, bilingual Lost Boy with magnetic charisma. Michal Ish-Horowicz is haunting as Peter, both vulnerable and defiant, her voice a trembling flame.
Ultimately, NeverLand is a frustrating, confusing play that doesn’t live up to its headline billing. The Guild of Misrule should be congratulated for using the tired immersive format to experiment with storytelling and audience expectations for immersion in the fantasy worlds they have long dreamt about, but alas, they haven’t pulled it off.
NeverLand is on until 18 March 2018 at Vault Festival 2018. Click here for more details.