By Jeremy Bloom
Directed by Jesse Hilford
Presented by Stage Two Productions
Musgrove Studio, Auckland | May 27-30
This isn’t the first stage adaptation I’ve seen of J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan this year, but while the Court Theatre’s production was devised by its team, spinning the original story into a mash-up with contemporary pop culture references, Jesse Hilford’s staging of Jeremy Bloom’s Peter/Wendy takes a more faithful approach. The main thing they both have in common, though, is honouring the sense of play that any version of a fairytale should seek to retain.
Successfully creating an atmosphere buzzing with childlike energy, the pre-show opens with the cast scribbling chalk on the floor of the set. It’s a frantic and captivating sight to behold. The setting is the realm of pure imagination, represented by a backdrop made up of bedsheets to create a gigantic tent, and just a single bed as furniture. However, the spareness of the stage means the cast have to do extra legwork to bring the audience into the world of Neverland and, while mostly successful, a few fight scenes verge on feeling overly messy.
It’s ultimately a moody rather than cartoonish version of the story, where everything feels like it takes place during the night and amongst the stars. Bloom’s script is full of evocative storytelling and is incredibly lyrical, though it occasionally relies too heavily on narration to tell the story, giving the impression of an actor reading from a book rather than being in a play. There are few images more definitive in the canon of children’s fiction than that of learning to fly in Peter Pan by thinking happy thoughts. And it’s in these moments of action where the play literally takes flight.
The youthful enthusiasm of the cast, guided by director Jesse Hilford, is the best thing about the show. And when directing actors playing children, it’s the most important thing too. Geneva Norman as Wendy is perfectly cast, embodying the awkwardness of a young girl on the cusp of growing up. She also has the tough job of lending weight to the melancholy inherent in the play, and she tackles it confidently. Irene Corbett as Peter Pan might not be the most obvious choice for the role, but holds her own playing the boy who never grew up. The cross-gender casting never poses any major issues, though her performance sometimes feels too youthful—less leader and more lost boy. She is undoubtedly an energetic force to be reckoned with, though, bouncing across the stage like lightning. As a scenery-chewing Captain Hook, Daniel Vernon clearly has a good time. The result is less villain and more parody, but considering Hook has never been the most intimidating figure it makes for an appropriate characterisation, especially with the self-consciousness of the dialogue. Caleb Wells as Smee is also equally enjoyable, sniveling and clueless in all the right ways.
While not quite a definitive retelling of Peter Pan I’ve been waiting for, Hilford has put on an enjoyable production of a beloved classic. If the darker themes of the play are still relatively watered down for consumption there’s still enough substance in the material to make it approachable for children and adults alike.