The Star Wars prequels and the musical, Wicked, told us all about how Darth became Darth and what life was like in Oz before Dorothy and her dog dropped in and caused such a to-do. Since then, our interest in knowing about the early years of other storybook icons, characters we have come to know and love (or hate) has only grown. Essentially, these prequels are the fairytale equivalent of “before they were famous.”
Directors Roger Rees and Alex Timbers’ production presents the backstory to the characters of Peter Pan and Captain Hook with admirable skill. Based on the novel by Dave Barry, and adapted by playwright Rick Elice, it presents the origins of The Boy Who Never Grew Up in an energetic and imaginative way; the story includes pirates, orphans and a treasure of magical stardust that transforms your desires into reality.
It opens with the twelve person cast inviting the audience to join them as they embark on their adventure. Lord Aster has been charged by Queen Victoria to sail to a mysterious island and dispose of the contents of a particular trunk. He is accompanied in this mission by his daughter Molly, an intelligent 13-year-old with a feminist streak – played by the delightful Celia Keenan-Bolger, the sole female cast member.
Of course, treasure chests plus pirates plus a secret cargo of orphans, including our very own Peter-to-be, the Boy With No Name, was bound to equal trouble.
The staging is engagingly physical. On the tempest-laden voyage, the cast use ropes to create waves and the interior of ship cabins; bunting doubles as crocodile teeth and the performers use their own bodies to form doorways to the ship’s underbelly. There is real artistry and precision on display. The cast are aided in this by Donyale Werle, whose scenic design, moving from the shadowed to the bright, symbolizes Peter’s journey from cynicism to hope. Secondly, credit is due to Frantic Assembly’s Steven Hoggett, who is responsible for the production’s use of movement and the impressive physicality of the piece.
At one point, Peter falls from a cliff top into a pool of golden stardust that makes your wishes come true where he is life-coached by a Mermaid who asks him the questions that will set him on the path of who he is to become both in destiny and in name. As played out on stage Adam Chanler-Berat’s Peter tumbles from a ladder into a fireman’s net. Yet, it’s done in such a way I you’ll be convinced forever after that you did watch him fall off a real cliff top and bathe in a real lagoon of golden liquid dust.
The entire cast give strong performances, with Christian Borle as Black Stache – our Captain Hook in the making – truly superb, mixing a Shakespearean style of delivery with a hammy quality in exactly the right measures. This use of camp and physical comedy are very reminiscent of a British pantomime, a Christmas tradition which amuses children and adults alike with its over-the-top performance style and insistence on audience engagement.
While there is an element of romance between Molly and Peter, both of them coming of age and feeling the stirrings of adolescent, sexual excitement, the real love story is between Black Stache and Peter, who are in essence two sides of the same coin. Stache himself is looking for his nemesis, so he can fulfil his villainous destiny. In this way, he is further along in his understanding and eagerness to embrace his life’s path than his counterpart.
During their journey, Peter is coaxed slowly out of his cynicism and hatred of grown-ups (“because they always lie'”) by a spirited and assertive Molly, who shows him that the way of the hero is to put others before yourself. Yet this is also where the show falls a little short – and I use this in the mildest term possible. Flashbacks reveal Peter’s tortured past and touch on the reasons behind his distrust of grown ups and his fervent desire to “be a boy for a while” yet they don’t delve deeply enough into how these experiences have shaped him. Peter is a boy who, during this sea voyage, is “seen” for perhaps the first time in his life and who glimpses, and eventually gets, his heart’s desire. What’s not deeply explored is what this really means to him or how it plays against the hardships he has suffered. While I’d like to have seen more of this come out, I also admit the exploration of this side of his character most likely has no place in the overall agenda of the production and not hinting at it more doesn’t detract from the sheer enjoyment of the spectacle.
This is a visual and physical feast, a production that encompasses humor, adventure, and – in its final scenes – real heart-wrenching sadness because it cannot end in the way everyone might have wished. Essentially, it’s a two-hour bedtime story for adults come to life, brilliantly told; the kind of show that will reawaken your childish imagination and fill you with a sense of wonder.