Expertly directed by Adam Meggido, this genially anarchic version of Barrie's famous play is performed by a gifted cast of graduates originating from the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. And the professionalism shows — in the implicit understanding of stage craft and ensemble work.
Scripted by Henry Shields (who also performs as Chris, the theatre director, and doubles as Captain Hook/Mr Darling) and Henry Lewis (performing as Robert, the assistant director, and doubling as Nana/the Shadow/Starkey) and Jonathan Sayer (as Dennis, an actor playing Michael Darling/Mermaid 1). All the cast perform double or triple roles, with Sophie Whittaker (stepping in commendably for Nancy Wallinger who is recovering from an injury in a preview) actually performing six parts: Mrs Darling, Lisa, Tinker Bell, Tiger Lily, Mermaid 3 and Cecco. This results in cues being missed or the wrong dialogue being spoken. There are times when the wrong scenery appears or the right scenery disintegrates or some unwanted, overheard and intrusive very private conversations emanate from the sound box.
The show is most successful when it sticks closely to a playful send up of Barrie's script and is less successful when including extraneous business which becomes a little indulgent and goes on for too long. Examples of this are the overlong verbal introductions to each act which aren't as funny as the script thinks they are. Some tightening up of this and a few other sequences would eliminate the longueurs.
But from the moment thick fog wafts in through the open nursery window it is clear that everything will not be as it should be in this particular Darling household. The nursery itself looks more like a Victorian orphanage, left over from Oliver Twist, than an upper-class children's room in Kensington. Some of the funniest moments happen in the nursery. Without spoiling anything, watch out for the switching off the nursery lights sequence by Mrs Darling (pure pantomime) and the bunk beds — just watch those bunk beds. And look out for what happens to poor Nana. The frequent invasion of black-clad stage-hands with electric drills and walkie-talkies (I think) reminded me of something which happened during a London preview of Sondheim's Into the Woods in 1990. A rising back cloth was sliced from top to bottom by a protruding piece of scenery. The show was stopped for 30 minutes and everyone was sent to the bar. I can still see Julia Mackenzie's green-faced witch stepping through the tear in the back cloth and swiftly yanking across the stage curtains. Then, Nicholas Parsons saved the evening with astonishingly clever ad-libbing. The equally funny 'ad libs' here are not liked by the Cornley Drama Society director but very much appreciated by us.
There is some terrifically mad and absurd choreography by Nell Mooney, especially in the frenetic dances. The clever, cartoonish use of the revolve stage by designer Martin Thomas and the catchy songs and music by Richard Baker and Rob Falconer are also highlights. There are several running jokes: one involving a taxi horn which seems to sound at the most inappropriate moments. Pratfalls are brilliantly managed.
Greg Tannahill is a winning, slightly camp Peter Pan who, by this account, has never actually learned to fly properly. He gets entangled in the flying wires, crashing into walls and windows. Charlie Russell as Sandra/Wendy has a nice line in physical comedy and aghast, horrified facial expressions. (In fact the entire cast have several hilarious moments when they are frozen to the spot in fear like rabbits caught in headlights.) Dave Hearn as Max/John Darling has a wonderful talent for the minimal stage gesture which expresses so much, while Sophie Whittaker as Tinkerbell is startling at times. Once, I'm sure I counted three Peter Pans on stage. Captain Hook loses his hook. And Peter's Shadow takes on a really unexpected life of its own. The sudden ticking of the alarm clock signalling the approach of the crocodile is a moment of pure theatrical magic.
It is all very good fun: madcap, inventive but expertly managed, with a real human story of ambition and romance at its heart. Buy a ticket before the whole cast is carted off on stretchers and there is no one left brave enough to perform it.