I was excited as soon as I heard Meyne Wyatt was to be in it, let alone in the title role. Inspired casting, even if my Meyne man has become something of a fixture at Belvoir, as certain actors are prone to do. In this case though, as opposed to the rather restricted clique that applies in principle, I certainly don’t mind. This is a talent that keeps on growing. And like the dragon fruit, he seems to have flowered overnight, with the bloom yielding to intensely bright, ripe, spiky fruit.
It’s not easy to recapitulate an old-school children’s story such that it’s imbued with the requisite razzle, dazzle, pace and momentum that one might find in, say, state-of-the-art 3D CGI movie blockbuster. (I say might, because, in my humble experience one all too rarely does.) Yet Belvoir artistic director Ralph Myers has achieved just that (it’s so successful, it makes it almost impossible to believe it’s based on a play that’s over a century old), with the credit to be shared, almost equally, between him and a crack team of creatives.
First among equals is J.M. Barrie, who wrote the more-or-less timeless classic about a classically timeless man-boy; mischievous and often airborne, much like myself. A close second is Tommy Murphy, who may already have cemented his contention for best adaptation of the year. Designer Robert Cousins has done some immensely tidy and clever things, with numerous surprises cunningly concealed within his set, which are unlocked as the play unfolds. A child’s bed, for example, becomes a fearsome crocodile. Composer and sound designer Stefan Gregory has collaborated and conspired to even include a rudimentary drum kit onstage, played, by turns, by various cast members. Fight director Scott Witt throws in visceral swordplay ‘tween Pan and Hook.
Paula Arundell is Mrs Darling and, hilariously, the Second Twin (making for a chequerboard gag) and Hook’s first mate, Starkey. Jimi Bani is John, one of the little Darlings, but Jimi makes him a big boy for his apparent age. Bani is really in his element, hamming it up as a wide-eyed kid. He also makes a mean crocodile. Well, meanish, in the most innocuous kind of way. Gareth Davies has something in his face that’s made for comedy and his athletic double-act with Wyatt, whose shadow he plays, is almost worthy of a Chaplin scene. Davies also appears as the naive Slightly, one of the lost boys, distinguished from the rest by the fact he’s the only one who knows his last name, since “Slightly Soiled” was marked on his pinafore. Yes, he’s so gullible he’s liable to believe they took the word out of the dictionary.
The wonderful Harriett Dyer (who also did credulity consummately late last year in Bell Shakespeare’s The School For Wives) is afforded the opportunity to indulge her comedic flair across multiple roles, including as Tinker Bell (Pan’s fairy, in case it’s been too long), the First Twin, Second Twin, Cecco Petrucci, Black Murphy and Pirate Mullins. Charlie Garber has the kind of fearlessness (as an actor, if not as Hook) that even allows him to ad lib, in response to callouts from the audience. He also plays the bumbling, ineffectual, eccentric, but kindhearted Mr Darling. Geraldine Hakewill has the plum role of Wendy, one of the most complex and compelling female characters, for mine, in all of English literature, given her hybridity: child; girlfriend, or even lover; mother; confidante.
Megan Holloway gets plenty of scope, too, as Michael, Tiger Lily and Jane. (Happily, Murphy and Myers have refrained from portraying Tiger Lily, one of the “Indians” of Neverland, as a less-than-noble savage; unlike Barrie, who crowned her princess of the Piccaninny tribe.) John Leary is Nana, the canine children’s nurse, Nibs (who, as a Lost Boy, gets one of the most pathetically funny lines, inasmuch as the only thing he remembers about his mother is she always wanted a chequebook) and Smee, the independently-minded Irish pirate.
This is a cast with nary a weak link: a dream ensemble that brims, bounds and bursts with a frenetic kinetic. In its stock-standard, suburban simplicity, Myers and company’s redolent reimaginings are lively enough to teach kids spoonfed with apps and Xboxes how to find their imaginary friends, in an imaginary world, just as Edwardian children doubtless did.
Just like Pan himself, this production really flies.
The details: Peter Pan plays Belvoir’s Upstairs Theatre until February 10. Tickets on the company website.