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Photo by Brett Boardman

Peter Pan

Belvoir presents PETER PAN by J.M. Barrie Adapted by Tommy Murphy in the Upstairs Theatre, 5 January – 10 February, 2013

I have not read PETER PAN in any of the manifestations, by J.B. Barrie, that Tommy Murphy, the present adaptor of this Belvoir production tells us learnedly about, in the program notes. I have not even seen the Walt Disney animated adaptation. I only know it from little snippets on the old Walt Disney show of my growing up, on Sunday nights at 6.30 on Channel 9, watching it in our fibro housing commission in North Ryde. I remember Peter in a costume like Errol Flynn’s Robin Hood, with hands akimbo on his hips, and Captain Hook with a hook for a hand and a crocodile with the sound of a ticking clock circling his boat. I remember Jiminy Cricket singing “When You Wish Upon a Star” in an impossibly high voice, but never the whole thing. So, this production was my introduction to this take on a famous work by a very interesting Edwardian writer for the stage.

The original is called PETER PAN: The Boy Who Would Not Grow Up. It is an international favourite. There were productions in Berlin, Stockholm and London that I saw advertised whilst there over the recent Holiday season. It is usually played in pantomimic fashion (that is, with Peter played by a young girl) with lots of stage tricks that can include real stage flying apparatus, etc – was there are more magical moment than the one where MARY POPPINS flew from the stage across the auditorium? No. I am remembering the awesome gasps from the audience, adult and child, including me, at the performance I saw it happen. OOOHH !!!!

When Wendy, John, and Michael are put to bed each night by their mother Mrs Darling and their nanny Nana the dog, their mother always tells them a bedtime story. Listening to these stories is Peter Pan, the boy who never grew up, who returns to Never Land to repeat the stories to the Lost Boys, who were lost when they fell out of their prams. Despite the jealous fairy Tinker Bell, Wendy and Peter become friends. Peter teaches the children to fly, and they all depart for Never Land, where Wendy becomes mother to the Lost Boys and where they have all kinds of adventures, including confrontations with the evil Captain Hook and his pirates. Eventually Peter Pan defeats Hook in a swordfight, and Hook is swallowed by a crocodile. The Darling children return to their relieved parents … But Peter stays in Never Land, where he will never age.

 The Oxford Dictionary of Plays, Michael patterson, Oxford Press, 2005

Belvoir’s stage is a two sided box with a very low roof and no off-stage wing space. No chance to actually fly here and little opportunity for the usual big mechanical tricks of the theatre to do so, but, in compensation, Ralph Myers, the Director has invited us instead to substitute all those usual tricks of stage equipment inventions with the best resource we may have as human beings, our own imaginations. And, it worked.

Robert Cousins has designed a set for this production as a rough and tumble, bogus wood-walled, large open bedroom for the Darling family in the suburb of Surry Hills – we can see the suburban street out through the open window, the curtain rustling to a breeze – in the time matrix of today. It is cluttered with the toys and paraphernalia of a lived in space as interesting, as chaotic as any found in a Spielberg family suburban home – the bedrooms in ET or POLTERGEIST, for instance. Alice Babidge has dressed the company of players in clothing of today, with her usual deft hand at disguising her work into such naturalness that it has no appearance of design at all – a difficult thing to do.

The original play of J. M Barrie demands a cast of 25 actors and it has been reduced to that of 9 by Tommy Murphy: Paula Arundell, Jimi Bani, Gareth Davies, Harriet Dwyer, Charlie Garber, Geraldine Hakewill, Megan Holloway, John Leary and Meyne Wyatt. All but Mr Wyeth, who is our Peter Pan – bursting with energy and whimsical cheek and a knowing sensibility- play multiple roles. The production is such that it looks as if these actors were thrown into, onto, the rehearsal space and told to imaginatively improvise their way, play, through this story, using only the stage furniture, props and costumes to create the adventures. The result, refereed, I presume by Mr Myers, is a children’s delight.

There were a delightful set of inventive solutions to the adventure demands that Peter and the children encounter. None more so than the re-connection of the shadow to Peter, the flying, and the creation of the pirate ship and the subsequent swordfight. Lots of children in my audience were full of chortling noises of wonder and outspoken approval. The crocodile was especially a great conjuring success. The demise of Hook an absolute amazement of inventive resourcefulness. Their response was certainly the greater part of the pleasant experience in the theatre for me. For, there were areas where the work stalled and became lumpen for us adults, and no more so than when some of the company were busier entertaining themselves and having tremendous fun with, and for, each other, than keeping us engaged and thrilled. Mr Gabor, Ms Dyer and Mr Davies were particularly self engaged – finding much to giggle at together, leaving us a trifle stranded and having to suspend our imaginations about the story we were inventing with them – like naughty children , indeed, who had not grown up!

Attending the theatre in Sydney can sometimes be a sad and worrying experience, if one thinks of its future. In this case I mean that the age demo-graphics of the audience is much older than I think is sustainable for the theatre to continue to exist (a worried pessimist?). If the young do not have the joy of the live theatre adventure, regularly, will they ever want to go later? (I have not forgotten the Theatre in Education work and companies. Monkey Baa for instance is a treasure. I am talking of the big budgeted experience). It might seem a very arcane and elitist thing to do, to most. Where there is no experience there will be no habit. No habit, no knowledge, no interest. It might mean no live theatre in the future (god forbid!). If lucky, perhaps when the young adult today is deciding to entertain themselves, the theatre might tempt them, just as something different to do, but then, when they look at the cost, will it be value for their money, bang for their bucks? After all, weekly, they can go to the cinema for a fairly inexpensive adventure, in comparison.

It was interesting, dam right encouraging, to see the age ranges in the theatres in Berlin, for instance, when I was there in December. In London, too, I sat amongst a theatre dominated by young adults at a Thursday night, three and three quarter hour performance of an adaptation of Bulgakov’s THE MASTER AND MARGARITA – no easy entertainment there, I can advise you – given by Theatre Complicite. The attention in the theatre was driven by a heightened sense of concentration and wonder. Similarly, at the performances of The Globe Theatre’s Shakespeare’s TWELFE NIGHT and RICHARD III in The Apollo Theatre on Shaftsbury Ave in London’s commercial West End, the audience age demographic was generously spread form youth to me. The atmosphere in the theatre tightly thrilled and packed.

So, it was a relief to read, recently that Brett Sheedy, Artistic Director of the Melbourne Theatre Company (MTC) was aware of this problem and moving to change it, down there. Belvoir has begun a pattern to invite and encourage the young to witness the wonder of well thought out and spare no detail theatre experiences. THE BOOK OF EVERYTHING and now PETER PAN are wonderful examples of what I should hope were a regular possibility. It is odd that the Sydney Theatre Company (STC) have not developed a habit for the young at a sophisticated, designated high end production for young children and adults, over the holiday period. The role model, par excellence, seems to be, The National Theatre of Great Britain, who annually present work for this audience of the young and their always young companions, and, soon, we shall see the high point of that commitment in a touring production of WAR HORSE, here in Sydney. If you haven’t caught it in Melbourne, DO NOT MISS IT, if you love the theatre. Take your children as well. It is a magnificent creation of the craft and art of the theatre, and thankfully, it has been a financially rewarding investment for the company, Nationally and Internationally. The commitment has reaped the rewards of vision and effort for that London Company. Could this genre of work not be a considered investment for our Sydney Companies?

Mr Myers and his company succeeded in giving most in the audience an unforgettable experience with PETER PAN. I hope the future plans hold similar adventures – truly, to keep us all young in the magic spaces of the live theatre. For today, with an eye to sustaining that magic into the future.