The Octagon demonstrates how to treat a childrens’classic with respect but uncover new aspects so as to make it appealing to adults as well as the target audience. Their new version of Peter Pan avoids the often-lazy pantomime techniques that short-change audiences.
The music in the show is not thankfully - re-heated versions of current chart hits; Barbara Hockaday’s original songs are played live and serve to move the show along. Most significantly the cast, including alternating teams of young actors from the area, seem determined to deliver their best work and to enjoy themselves in the process. Christopher Villiers’ Captain Hook has just the right level of pomposity needed for a great comic villain. His descent, by rope, into Peter’s hideout is a comic highlight.
Director/dramaturg Elizabeth Newman’s revisions shift the theme of the play from the joy of childhood towards the importance of stories and legends in maintaining that innocent state. The effect is to move the focus away from the title character, played by Samuel Hargreaves, towards Wendy (Amy Noble). Noble’s spunky heroine is not a passive mother figure but a lively, even bloodthirsty, storyteller who revels in sword fights and looks forward to dismembering enemies.
The show features many strong female role models including Natalie Grady’s perceptive Mrs. Darling and Anna Wheatley’s marvellously feral fairy, Tinkerbell. The latter is particularly striking spluttering exasperated bird-trills like a demented Klingon. The only point where Newman starts something she can’t finish is an effort to explore what the women of Neverland really want from Peter.
The storytelling theme is drawn out with Elizabeth Wright’s split-level set that looks as if it has grown right out of a child’s storybook - with bright basic colours and quotes from J M Barrie’s text forming ominous dark clouds overhead.
The Neverland set is less successful and has to rely on Ciaran Bagnall’s lighting to give the sense of a menacing jungle. Newman mixes humour and peril in just the right amounts. During their flight to Neverland the Darling children ask ‘Are we there yet?’ The entrances of the characters are dramatic with Tinkerbell magically emerging from a child’s doll’s house and claps of thunder highlighting the arrival of Captain Hook.
The production plays to it’s strengths; flying scenes are kept to a minimum but the same effect is achieved by characters sliding down a fireman’s pole or escaping by bicycle.
Peter Pan is such a success that you can see why The Octagon has the confidence to already be taking bookings for next year’s Christmas show.