Review written by Flossie Waite
A Tom Penn & Battersea Arts Centre co-production
Reviewed at Durham Town Hall as part of TakeOff Festival
For ages 1 – 3
J.M. Barrie wrote that if children’s minds were maps, they would look like Neverland – the magical island is a topographic representation of their imagination. This co-production from Tom Penn and Battersea Arts Centre therefore has two aims: to create a physical playing space that mimics the malleable creativity of young brains, and to allow audiences to explore their imagination through play. Though the production creates beautiful conditions in which to realise these ambitions – inviting audiences into a tented den for an immersive experience – ultimately Neverland feels like a missed opportunity.
Though inspired by the unfettered imaginings of tiny minds, what happens inside the Neverland tent is surprisingly limited. The majority of the production focuses on just a couple of ideas: a forest of falling leaves, and an underwater world full of fish. Though they are nice moments – offering audiences a chance to touch the drifting leaves and throw them in the air, to hear the swish of water and pop floating bubbles – they go on for far too long and feel like obvious choices.
Audiences are met by the performers and led into the space, though this doesn’t sufficiently prepare some children for the tent environment which they can find initially scary. More could be done to make this journey part of the performance (in the effective style of Oily Cart), perhaps even introducing later elements such as a trail of leaves to follow, to gradually introduce a young audience to the world they are about to enter.
Playing for such young children, the piece generally takes a non-narrative approach, focusing on moments rather than story, and sensory exploration rather than language. Still, the performance is bookended with lines about imagination – reminders to celebrate it, explore it, encourage it. The concept of ‘imagination’ is bandied around a lot in children’s theatre, and badly handled it can be almost oppressive; here, imagination is something to be achieved rather than something that the audience naturally do.
Neverland has fantastic tools at its disposal – the tent is a beautiful space, with audiences tucked up in individual beds, underneath huge projections that cover the roof, and able to venture into the performance space and interact directly with the performers and other children if they want to. It is also beginning to offer meaningful opportunities for adults and children to engage with the performance and play together. But in its current form, Neverland needs to do so much more.
Children’s Theatre Reviews exists to help plug the gap in criticism and writing about theatre for young audiences. It is run entirely voluntarily, and needs support to continue covering and supporting the sector. For more information and to help give children’s theatre the voice it deserves, please visit our Patreon page.