Peter Pan in Scarlet

Review written by Luke Billingham and Flossie Waite
An Oxford Playhouse and The New Vic Theatre, Newcastle-under-Lyme co-production
Reviewed at Oxford Playhouse

Playing until 4th September

Imagine if another band tried to produce a sequel to Sergeant Pepper 100 years on– the difficulties that group would face are not dissimilar to those experienced by an author attempting to continue Peter Pan. Geraldine McCaughrean’s challenge was compounded immeasurably by the central idea of the original story – perpetual youth – which remains key to its appeal. If J. M. Barrie’s plot pivoted around the idea of not growing up, then any change or character development in later episodes risks being viewed as a betrayal.

In this adaptation of McCaughrean’s book, the fears of Barrie’s characters are realised – Wendy, John and the Lost Boys have grown up into banal maturity. Their sleep becomes disturbed by tumultuous dreams of a troubled Neverland – their former nirvana has been causing nightmares. Taking this as a sign that Neverland needs them, they find their way back to it (through rather clunky means.)

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The troupe arrive to find Peter no longer a cocky but courageous hero, but rather an irritatingly egotistic man-child. It’s a bit like a night out spent with a particularly charismatic friend who, when inebriated, simply becomes a brat – the Peter in this production isn’t scary or haunted or complex, he’s just annoyingly despotic. Though it’s all part of the plot, it does mean that you spend 7/8ths of the play disliking the eponymous character.

Much of the production is sort of half-staged – rather than engaging in an actual sword fight, for instance, Hook and Peter thrust and parry stood 10 metres apart, facing in the direction of the audience. The intention is clear (at least, as an adult audience member) – your imagination is meant to fill in the gaps, to perceive the pair swooshing their cutlasses towards one another’s necks. But it seems less an effective catalyst of the imagination than a somewhat misguided directorial whim – it removes plenty of jeopardy, tension and drama, and adds little. An analogous attempt to simulate a train journey using physical theatre falls similarly flat – in this case, the issue is exacerbated by the unclear purpose of the journey. Of course, all theatre, and particularly theatre for young audiences, relies on prompting the audience’s own imaginings, rather than just literally portraying every piece of the action, but to be successful in this requires a greater degree of craft and control than is evident here.

Stagecraft and imagination do come together fruitfully, however, in the flying scenes. The synchronized acrobatics on aerial silks portray the characters soaring through the air with a graceful subtlety.

The plot is overcomplicated. The central thrust of the narrative at first seems to be the quest to heal whatever ailment is afflicting Neverland. But, this is quite swiftly derailed by Peter’s desperation to find Hook’s treasure. The problem is not so much the derailment itself, but the fact that you are then witnessing an adventure in which you have little investment, and the one you did care about is concluded rather perfunctorily. Coherent in broad strokes, but labyrinthine in detail, it includes a number of unwieldy subplots that are poorly executed: at one point, Slightly is banished to some nether region of Neverland, and it isn’t clear quite how he escapes.

Like many adaptations of Peter Pan, this sequel links the narrative to the First World War, but this shadowy backstory never convincingly ties in with the action – vaguely hinted at intermittently throughout the play, its part in the story is eventually explained in a rushed and unconvincing fashion.

The classic Peter Pan story we all know and love was a play before it was a book, with Barrie making tweaks and changes to the stage show almost every year up until his death. It is very clear in this case that Peter Pan in Scarlet was a book prior to its stage adaptation, with plots and subplots which did not effectively cohere. Or maybe I’ve just grown up?

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