Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Review: Peter Pan, Bristol Old Vic

Before I went to see Peter Pan, it occurred to me that although I knew the story pretty well, I had never actually read or seen the original. So I went to the library and cribbed JM Barrie's original script, and then I went to Bristol Old Vic and saw their version.

One is not much like the other. JM Barrie's script is a lush, sentimental, Edwardian visual extravaganza which was partly a vehicle for delivering tableau of themes which would have been familiar to fans of children's literature at the time: pirates, Indians, and fairies. The Bristol Old Vic version, on the other hand, is a modern physical theatre show without a trace of brocade or lace. The whole thing has been 'de-Victorianised'.

In some ways, this is an improvement. Time has made some of the original 1904 script almost unsayable, and reading the phrase 'Mother wants you to die like English gentlemen' made me shudder.

Photo: Bristol Old Vic
Aside from this, JM Barrie's story is rambling and confusing, and by using the story but not the script, they had made it all less unweildy. This production skims off the ickiness and creepiness from the original, and turns it to humour instead.

I have lots of good things to say about the show. The actors were all excellent. The music was excellent. Tinkerbell was genius. Homicidal Captain Hook, in a kilt, played it like Begbie and was really scary. Wendy, who in the original is a bit drippy, was a lot more feisty.

The acrobatics, which were done with all the ropes and mechanics in full view of the audience, were lively, and everyone threw themselves around with abandon. It must have been a demanding production for the performers, who had to have a good deal of circus skills as well as singing and acting.

However, there was one thing that disappointed me, and that was the look of the thing. The set was junk-scavenged, paint-splattered metal and plastic. Neverland looked like an urban warehouse, and the Lost Boy's den  somewhere the homeless would hide. I'm sure all this was deliberate: an attempt to strip the play of its sentimental tweeness and make it relevant to modern yoof. While I don't have a problem with this as a concept, I thought the end result was ugly. Also, in doing so, they'd lost the difference between the drabness of the childrens parents' flat and the colourful wonders of Neverland.

All of which made me, as a person who can tolerate as much fin-de-siecle kitsch and dusty edwardian colour-bookness as would kill a normal person, a little sad. I was begging for one opulent flourish, but no, austerity Britain it was. Still, I don't suspect people who take their children will complain. There was a row of children in front of us, and they loved it.

|For the adults, it's also worth mentioning the Old Vic have got rid of their monstrously uncomfortable seats and that the theatre, which nearly went bust a few years ago, is looking full and lively instead of run-down and sad. Which is a good thing, unequivocally, and I would have said that even if they hadn't given me a free glass of wine, honest.

I'm quite sure this show will be rammed from now until it's closing date, so good for them. I, personally, will skulk off read a George MacDonald novel, and dream about the day when theatres can afford to produce a stageload of damask-coloured dreams without worrying about price tags.

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