Saturday 5th December 2015, matinée
Almost a year ago, we reviewed The Play that Goes Wrong, and concluded by hoping to see more of Mischief Theatre. So we were very pleased to find out that their touring production of Peter Pan Goes Wrong was coming to the West End with the original company, and keen to see how many different ways they could ruin a production of ‘Peter Pan’.
For the uninitiated, the set up is simple but effective. The Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society, receiving a clearly undeserved injection of cash from the uncle of one of its worst actors, reaches new heights of inappropriate ambition, with a full on version of ‘Peter Pan’, complete with a revolving set, high wire antics and an insane rate of doubling up to portray all the characters. This is a serious undertaking – ‘Not a pantomime’, the director declares (“Oh yes it is!” declares a plucky cast member).
Mischief Theatre have a tried and tested recipe for success, with pure, unadulterated slapstick at the heart of it. Some of the simplest disasters are the most effective. Hence Nana, the Newfoundland dog who acts as the children’s nanny, played by the most, shall we say, portly of the actors (Henry Lewis), gets stuck in her ‘dog flap’ in the door with satisfying predictability, and the world’s most unsubtle stage-hands rescue ensues as Mrs Darling tries to sing a lullaby to her children. The triple bunk beds collapsing with joyful precision is another great moment, as are the numerous imaginative and beautifully executed accidents which result in physical, mental or emotional injury for most of the cast.
On top of the highly technical wizardry with which Peter Pan really does ‘go wrong’, we have the classic characters of the amateur stage – the star-struck and vaguely competent actors who want to keep reminding us of their brilliance; the stage hands who inevitably get roped in (in this case literally) to cover a part and whose sheer embarrassment and pain is clearly visible. And then there are the different types of incompetence – a young girl playing Tootles (Rosie Abraham) whose parents have decided she really must get over her stage fright; the actor playing John Darling (Jonathan Sayer), who refuses to learn his lines and spends the entire play wearing radio headphones so his lines can be relayed to him; and Max (Dave Hearn), the one with the rich uncle who yearns to play Peter Pan so he can get close to the actress playing Wendy (Charlie Russell). His desperation to be in the limelight coupled with extreme incompetence is indeed an acting tour de force.
All these elements are skillfully layered together by writers Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields. Naturally it is the actress with the worst stage fright to whom all the accidents happen, culminating in a gloriously surreal moment when she must somehow walk the plank in a wheelchair on a violently listing ship. Tinkerbell (a delightful and extremely versatile Nancy Wallinger – this is just one of her many quick-change parts) deserves a prize for being the world’s most unethereal fairy – with trainers, a hip-hop dance style and array of full size light-bulbs adorning her costume which requires a stage hand to follow her at all times, feeding electrical cable out as she moves around. Disaster comes as expected when she is sprayed with water, but the resolution is hilariously surreal. John’s radio headphones allow a window into the backstage angst as he repeats everything he is told, leading to a full scale marital break-up interrupting the action. The high-wire shenanigans are also taken to a new level. The initial set-up for the children to fly away with Peter Pan is nicely undercut when only their clothes soar into the gods. Then the actor playing Peter Pan, never quite appearing to be in control of the wire, meets with an ‘unfortunate accident’, ushering in that mischief theatre signature moment – the stage hand taking over the part. Adding to the comedy of out of control wire antics, he is reading not just his lines, but the stage directions, his voice trembling with dread as he realises too late that he is about to be yanked unceremoniously onto the nearest piece of scenery. Needless to say the stage direction ‘Peter Pan lands effortlessly and gracefully’ is never enacted. We won’t reveal the coup de grace and its aftermath, but it is done exquisitely. There can’t be many things more difficult than performing perfectly choreographed hire wire sequences that seem to be careering out of control, and Greg Tannahill and Chris Leask as Peter Pan and Trevor the stage hand respectively do it brilliantly.
There is so much to enjoy here that it would be churlish to complain, but at times the comedy becomes unfocused as if there is a literal embarrassment of riches in the source material. It is the true sadism that tends to work best, and we would love to see them tackle something really disastrous – how about ‘Titanic goes wrong’……