The hopelessly inept cast and crew of Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society have certainly (and inexplicably) moved onto bigger things since their first play went quite enjoyably wrong at the Old Red Lion Theatre.
Only a few months later, Mischief Theatre bring another theatrical farce to the packed-out Pleasance main house, and perhaps the quick turn-around can partially excuse this disappointing rehash of their more likeable previous effort. Quite soon into this extended gag-reel, it becomes clear that the agonising repeats aren’t just a feature of the disastrous play-within-play but a visible case of Mischief Theatre scraping the joke barrel clean. Once the punch lines stop punching, Peter Pan Goes Wrong simply descends into a roll call of exquisitely choreographed errors – admirable enough but never truly engaging.
Even as the show blunders expertly onwards, it does so utterly without momentum, the only organising principle being that relentless, self-perpetuating chaos – no rewarding set-ups, no delightful domino effect – just chaos for chaos’ sake, as if Mischief Theatre is frightened the audience will demand their money back should they fail to explore every possible avenue of ‘wrong’ that the show’s title suggests.
And so the shambles begin: missed cues, glaring absences, a self-destructive set, an increasingly desperate director, a range of horrendous performances (from Kristen Stewart-style insistent upward inflection to ), cast concussions, backstage blunders, back-stabbing and a backfiring revolve mechanism. The problem is there’s more incoherency than hilarity, especially because the writers remain oddly, punishingly faithful to almost every scene of Barrie’s original drama, unwittingly revealing the hollowness of the exercise. Of course, the text doesn’t matter because it’s just a structure on which to hang the mishaps but, unlike the hammy Haversham Manor plot in The Play That Goes Wrong – ever so simple and corruptible – there’s an undeniable ring of authenticity to Barrie’s classic fairy-tale, and occasionally the poetics throw even the most enthusiastic audience members off the laughter track.
Of course, farces are never noted for their subtlety but by the interval, there’s been so much smashing the cast into the set and vice versa that the characters are pretty much indistinguishable, clearly nothing but crash-test dummies in the grand scheme of things. Mischief Theatre clearly struggle to bring any sense of humanity to proceedings – when what we demand is an insight into inner lives, the play responds with some quite atrocious ‘accidental recordings’ that mercilessly hustle the plot forward. I had noted down ‘criminally underused’ for the resident deer in the headlights, Max (Dave Hearn) who grins at the audience like an incredibly proud seven year old after every line, but his genuinely touching vulnerability is undermined by a heavy-handed feel-good storyline in Act 2 which gives him a love object and more disappointingly, some passable acting ability. By the end, the final ugly cliché we have so far managed to avoid is heartily embraced when both female characters, initially imbued with a semblance of dignity, turn into cardboard cut outs for the requisite romantic entanglement revelation concluding with the classic, and always offensive, catfight chase through the revolving set.
What’s most frustrating is the genuinely impressive execution of the whole thing, and if there was example of two rights – a strong cast and a mostly solid creative team – somehow making a wrong, then this show is it. The glimmers of glory are, as always, in the detail. In the first scene, director Chris (Henry Shields) tries and fails to hang his jacket up on a painted coat hook, followed by a brilliant and tiny moment of quite lovable idiocy where he tentatively almost-strokes it, just to check. This kind of attentiveness is soon drowned out by the din of malfunctioning sound cues and cries of pain. Intermittently endearing but more often tedious, Peter Pan Goes Wrong has neither the heart nor guts to carry off its protracted parody of a theatrical car-crash without becoming one itself.