I do not think I have ever laughed as much in a theatre as I did last night at Peter Pan Goes Wrong. I was laughing within moments of curtain up. I laughed solidly, until breath became difficult, and that part of my brain that wondered when the pace would dip was soon required to take over the duties of ensuring my blood still had fizz and my throat didn’t strangle. I laughed through the interval, guffawed somehow more during the second half and continued to giggle through the charity appeal for Great Ormond Street Hospital, and most of the way home.
Peter Pan Goes Wrong is a kind of Christmas spinoff to Mischief’s Theatre’s The Play That Goes Wrong. Rather than the latter’s target – the ubiquitous am-dram staple 1920s drawing room comedy – this time the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society have set their sights on J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, which director & actor – or “Dactor” as he dubs himself in the brilliant programme – Chris Bean (Henry Shields) insists is not a pantomime.
Oh yes it is, we chorus.
The delight of this show comes not simply from the technical and acting disasters – and they are constant, endlessly inventive, minutely detailed and satisfyingly groan-inducing from the moment Stage Manager Trevor Watson (Chris Leask) announces the Health and Safety regulations about plastic containers while sipping from a glass beer bottle – but from the pitch-perfect am-dram and student theatre stereotypes on show. Sandra (Charlie Russell) plays Wendy with all the intermittent gusto of an actor with a prospective agent in the audience. Max (Dave Hearn) is only there because his uncle has donated to the company. Robert (Henry Lewis) is angling for the Dactor’s job. Every one of them has a little arc which is brought to fruition as they desperately try to keep the show running.
It’s that desire amongst the fictional company not to acknowledge anything going wrong which makes this quite so much fun. More than a parody of ambitious non-professional theatre – shooting for every bell, whistle and revolve they have seen on grander stages – the piece’s humour really stems from the desire of theatremakers to exercise complete control over their creations. The figure of Chris Bean, in full Captain Hook regalia, insisting that the audience do not enjoy the play in any way other than he intends, scowling at all audience interaction until he finally, indignantly asks one of the front-row for assistance with a prop is the crux of this satire on theatrical authorship and control.
It’s very silly, it’s very fun, it’s expertly pulled off.
The quality of laughter is strained;
It gasps for air, a whoopee cushion’s breath
After raspberry cry. It is twice blessed;
Blessing those it gags and those the gags made.