Phil Willmott’s new musical is born out of the idea that the generation of young men who signed up so eagerly for the First World War were also the first generation to encounter classic children’s fiction such as Peter Pan, The Wind in the Willows and Little Lord Fauntleroy.
J.M. Barrie’s much documented friendship with the Llewelyn-Davies boys inspired Peter Pan and three of those children would go on to fight and die in the Great War. This knowledge shadows a piece which picks up the story of Peter Pan five years on and is set in a world in which Peter and the Lost Boys have grown up and moved on, though they still struggle to temper their boisterous, rebellious tendencies. Their insatiable search for adventure leads them to drink like members of the Bullingdon Club and brawl in the streets with the reckless yet stylish violence of Alex’s Clockwork Orange gang.
This was a time of Empire and arrogance and it seems inevitable that young men, reared on tales of adventure and full of Imperial swagger, would be eager to sign up to fight for King and country in the greatest show on earth.
It’s an intriguing idea but this Neverland reunion is not quite as satisfying as it might be, particularly in its handling of some of the other characters Peter encounters from his past. Bitter and vengeful as ever, Hook is now a down and out opium addict and Peter meets Tinkerbell, whose been trafficked and abused, in the bushes touting for business.
There are times when the placing of these well-loved characters into such troubling and squalid situations borders on parody. The whole thing occasionally comes across as a kind of adult panto, and the scene in which the raddled and worn out Tinkerbell rapes Peter Pan is particularly dark and nasty. And yet the show doesn’t linger on the dark side for long; it’s actually a pretty big, bright and energetic affair and the cast is incredibly committed, singing in full voice, giving it their all.
The Finborough stage is arguably too small for a 24-song musical with a cast of 12, a complex set and three musicians (though it will soon be transferring to the larger Charing Cross Theatre) but Lost Boy works well enough in the space. There are full dance routines, a sleight of hand magic show and even the obligatory shaky follow-spot: none of which feel out of place or over the top thanks to the sensitivity of the direction.
There’s an old fashioned feel to the production, which while appealing, also extended to its gender roles. Aside from Wendy, the female performers are consigned to appearances as chorus girls, whores and can-can dancers or made to tut at the bad behaviour of their male counterparts. Instead of the sashes of ‘Votes for Women’ they wear the rosettes of the ‘Wives of the Lost Boys’ definable only by their relationship to their menfolk, easing their grief with gin and the tired, misguided consolation that ‘boys will be boys’. Given that this is a new musical it could have done more to explore and unpick the assumption that men were the agents of change and women were not, rather than just reiterating it.
It’s difficult to fault the young and enthusiastic cast however and the piece is near on flawless in its execution; the way in which they squeeze such an ambitious spectacle into such a small room is quite an impressive achievement.