"All the way down there please, to the very end, then it's on your right." An usher is directing us through the Vaults – a rambling network of catacombs-turned-arts spaces beneath Waterloo station – and for a second, it's like you're Wendy being told the way to Neverland by Peter Pan. "Second to the right, and straight on till morning", and all that. It sure feels like an adventure down here.
The omens for this Pan-inspired immersive musical were good. This centrepiece of this year's VAULT Festival is partly the work of The Guild of Misrule, who were behind the brilliant Great Gatsby musical here in 2017. But while last year's show was a heady hit, sadly this year's just doesn't sing.
NeverLand's focus isn't on young Peter himself, but the story of how the icon of children's fiction was created. It introduces author JM Barrie (a stirring Dominic Hall), and some of the real people on whom several of his characters were based. Among them are his friends the Llewelyn Davies family, and Barrie's brother David, who died at age 14 and inspired the frozen-in-time figure of Pan himself.
Written and directed by Alexander Wright, the escapade that unfolds is reminiscent of the Pan story itself, with Barrie and friends venturing through their own, dream-like Neverland. There's a meeting of the Lost Boys and a lament over motherlessness via a rendition of the song "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child". And there are battles between the Lost Boys and Captain Hook and his pirates – with the audience split in two and told to hurl paper balls at each other.
Tequila shots are handed out; a massive trombone solo gets played; men in lab coats rap about mums. Sometimes, this is a poignant, grown-ups-orientated show – often its barmy moments prove more memorable. But while a happy-go-lucky approach sounds fair enough for a story about the Boy Who Never Grew Up, the spirited chaos of NeverLand is at odds with the careful dynamics it needs to have to truly sparkle either as a musical or as a piece of immersive theatre, let alone both at once.
The best bits happen in side-rooms that the performers whisk you away to for a little chat while the action unfolds. They include Barrie's study, as well as a sort of pirate's treehouse thing, and – courtesy of an impenetrable subplot in which Peter seems to have finally grown up, left Neverland, and started work at a publishing house – an office meeting room. Transitions between the spaces can be clunky due to the audience size, and these toned-down scenes are particularly hard to hear thanks to the noise of other, competing scenes elsewhere.
Still: it's a pity these lavishly decorated mini-sets don't feature a bit more. It's in a cavernous central area that most of the key exposition happens, and it's here, also, that the acoustics can be at their most unforgiving when the story is told through song lyrics. The performances are good, but without vocal amplification the space is just impossible to command.
And that means that just following the show is the most challenging thing of all. A plot which is similar-but-slightly-different to the familiar Peter Pan tale needs to demand from the viewer some real focus, and the chaotic hijinks with the audience sword-fighting, dancing, and so on doesn't lend itself to that. NeverLand is aching to expand on themes of lost youth, masculine experience, and the futility of war found in Barrie's work. There is possibly an ambitious, mature play in there waiting to be set free. At the moment, though, it's more of a lost child.
NeverLand runs at the VAULT Festival until 18 March.