Writer: JM Barrie
Adaptor: Sarah Punshon
Music/Lyrics: Ziad Jabero and Claire Tustin
Director: Lotte Wakeman
Nowadays the younger generation seem only too willing to grow old before their time. This makes the theme of JM Barrie’s Peter Pan– avoiding responsibility and retaining childlike innocence and beliefs by refusing to mature- a bit difficult to present to the target audience. Sarah Punshon’s adaptation, staged by Octagon Theatre in Bolton, tackles this situation directly. Set in the present Wendy (Purvi Parmar), far from being reluctant to put aside childish things, proudly proclaims she has outgrown fairly stories.
The theme shifts, therefore, towards modern concerns of coping with disillusionment and loss of faith – a child of divorced parents Wendy is angry her father has found a new partner. The cliff-hanger at the end of the first act comes from a threat of betrayal rather than physical danger. The show pays tribute to the healing power of imagination to help distract from such problems. The games Peter Pan devises for his tribe help them cope with hunger or loneliness and transform everyday objects into weapons of wonder. The songs, by Ziad Jabero and Claire Tustin, are a reminder of the need to retain a sense of fun throughout life; advocating dusting off responsibility and dusting on possibility.
This is a very contemporary production- an arrow is defected by Wendy’s mobile phone. Tinkerbell (Jason Patel) is gender fluid and dislikes being put into boxes and Captain Hook is female. Rather than the bright colours of the Disney cartoon the costumes for the Lost Boys, by designer Rose Revitt, are camouflage combat gear or washed-out overalls. Peter Pan (Matthew Heywood), while undeniably heroic and a boisterous leader, is realistically moody and prone to sulking. Amy Drake, on the other hand, clearly enjoys making Captain Hook a hissable villain in the grand panto tradition.
We are still not completely free of the effects of the pandemic so the possibility of padding out the cast with youngsters is not an option. A cast of just five taking on a minimum of three roles each enact the principal roles and the Lost Boys and pirates. This could be confusing for the young audience at which the play is directed, but the rapid pace set by director Lotte Wakeman and a breathtakingly versatile cast ensure such potential problems do not arise.
Although the number in the cast is modest the show does not lack spectacle. The mid-air acrobatics designed by Winged Ariel Theatre have a powerful impact in the intimate theatre space as Wendy and Peter take to the skies over the heads of the audience and a there is a spectacular showdown with the pirates. Rose Revitt’s set conceals a ball pit that serves as a lagoon and, more importantly, creates a comedy highpoint particularly for the youngsters in the front row who delight in catching and throwing back any misplaced balls. The crocodile which haunts Captain Hook is a massive creature emerging from the wings in a mist of dry ice looking like it would be very much at home in The Little Shop of Horrors.
Director Lotte Wakeman nails her colours to the mast from the opening making clear this is a production with a high level of participation and in which the audience have priority. Right from the start, with a framing sequence in which Tinkerbell tells the tale of Peter Pan, the audience is encouraged to take part cheering and clapping along. This reaches a high point in the second act where the audience is asked to free a becalmed ship by creating (wait for it) a Mexican Wave.
Octagon Theatre’s Peter Pan is a strong update of a classic creating a festive show perfect for children of all ages.
Runs until 9 January 2022