first night

Peter Pan

Rebecca Mackinnon takes a look at the Freshers' Play 2008, directed, produced, teched and performed entirely by first years.

An adaptation of one of the best known and loved of all stories is no mean feat for any director, so it was with trepidation that I approached this year’s fresher’s play, Peter Pan.

A word of advice – if you’re going to adapt a Victorian play into something relevant to 21st century living, don’t drag the language along with you. It was obvious what Adam Usden was trying to achieve – loyalty to J.M Barrie’s world – but unfortunately the inconsistent references to modernity were few and far between and did nothing to engage us in this new world. Taking the idea of flying and turning it into an LSD trip might have worked, had the entire script been adapted to accommodate it – as it was, this moment came completely out of blue, was over too quickly, and left many unsatisfied with this brutal treatment of a favourite childhood memory.

In the same way, the concept of the lost boys becoming hooligans and the lawless pirates becoming policemen was lost on me. The pirates are, surely, written as the antithesis of the law, rather than its upholders – and the lost boys should be the heroes. A little sensitivity to the current social climate of gun crime and murdered policemen might have indicated that an audience might not sympathise with a troop of vandals, however loveable they might be. Turning Nana into a person presented us with a strange choice, considering that the script wasn’t adapted to reflect her newfound humanity. Consequentially, lines such as ‘That’s her scared face’ left us wondering if this old woman (actually very convincingly played by Ellie Hunter) was mute. Mr Darling’s practical joke therefore stops being funny – it was just a pompous businessman making an elderly woman choke, and laughing.
Peter Pan, played by Matthew Urwin, represented a peculiar decision, again, on behalf of the director. Rather than an impish, moody, but ultimately heroic young boy, we were given a depressive adolescent whose demeanour was such that we wouldn’t have been surprised if he knifed someone as he retreated through the crowd in the final scene. The irony of this terrifying, charmless youth crying out that he wanted joy while scowling petulantly into the audience was not lost. Having said this, Urwin possibly had the most difficult job in making the dated language believable as the voice of a young homeless boy, so far removed from each other were Barrie’s and Usden’s concepts of the play.
Disappointingly, there were some cases of very wooden, school-play acting. Stage craft was not good – Nicola Twiston-Davies in particular stands out as never delivering a line anywhere but into the wings or the back wall, and while it is not always wrong to turn your back to the audience, this was clearly not an acting choice. There were, however, saving graces. Gareth Davies as Hook showed potential – the stage presence and the voice were impressive – but he needed to remember he was playing a caricature, not Lear at the RSC. There was no room for two tortured souls in the production, and Peter himself had already taken this role. David Head displayed great comic timing as Slightly; the Crocodile was a bizarre yet wonderfully comic cameo; and Edmund Massey’s (John) brilliantly weary and ironic rendition of the contextually ridiculous line, ‘Oh yes, it does indeed need a chimney’, is memorable as a moment of true originality in the show. Finally, an actor took the lines, did something unexpected and made them his own. The lost boys, despite being conceptually flawed, were genuinely likeable – sweet and bumbling, energetic and funny.
All in all, Peter Pan was a brave attempt – but there were many things standing in the way of this being a good piece of theatre. Usden’s decision to double-cast almost every character was one that perhaps reflected the spirit of the fresher’s play – to involve as many people as possible – but in this case it stood in the way of anyone seeming fully rehearsed in any part they performed. However, the speech following the performance, while conventionally left until the after-party, showed a deep enthusiasm for what they were doing, and respect for their director, who, despite his conceptual misjudgements, is obviously talented. And surely, this is at least part of what student theatre is about – passion. But it’s also about producing a good show, and while theatre at Durham is amateur, it has the potential to be phenomenal, and sadly Peter Pan was not.

31 January 2009

The views expressed in the reviews and comments on this page are those of the reviewer, and are not representative of the views of DST or Durham University.
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