There's no doubt that The Watermill's special claim to fame, re-imagining large-scale musicals using actor/musicians, has breathed new life into familiar shows. But can just six actors recreate Neverland in the heart of the Berkshire countryside? Can they ever!
The attraction of the Peter Pan story is that it is, like its eponymous hero, unpredictable and whimsical. JM Barrie himself kept adding ideas, scenes and speeches to his original play. So there's a positive merit in seeing the story stripped down to the essentials by co-writers Robin Belfield (also director) and Simon Slater (also composer), with a focus on Neverland rather than on the Darling home and a babysitting dog. This also allows the writers to get the very young in the audience to follow the plot with ease and without recourse to a dumbed-down text or the need for commercial panto clichés.
So Oliver Izod and Ed Thorpe get to show off their flexibility by tripling rather than doubling up as the Lost Boys, the Indians and the Pirates. Call that quadrupling - they make a pair of very sexy mermaids too, thanks to breathtaking costume changes!
Old Etonian Captain Hook (who incidentally did not appear in early drafts of the play) is devilishly worked by Morgan Philpott, again a broad but not pantomimic character, all twirling moustaches and swaggering tailcoat, while Tiger Lily, strong and silent Abiola Ogunbiyi, finds her voice in a show of feminist strength.
Jay Worley's mischievous boy who can fly and never grows up is a fascinating mixture of the man-child suffering the complexes of an orphan together with the hardness of someone who has to fend for himself. Bronte Tadman's Wendy represents the entire younger generation of Darlings single-handed, subsuming the boys John and Michael into one deliciously-rounded bold, imaginative tomboy with ease. She is a perfect reflection of the whole show, child-like but not too childish, a modern girl coming to terms with Neverland. In a nice touch, Mr Darling (Philpott again, the traditional doubling with Hook) is a single dad and to see him reunited with his daughter is genuinely affecting.
Special mention must be made of Tinkerbell, who flits and flashes her anger and charms all over the auditorium, thanks to Mark Dymock's wonderfully imaginative lighting. It's amazing too what Dymock can do with a couple of gobos, working seamlessly with designer Neil Irish to create all the magical corners of both Neverland and nursery with equal parts imagination and economy.
The cast do a fine job of playing and singing the specially composed music designed to enhance the qualities the writer/directors so much seem to want to bring out – a joyous reworking of a classic for a modern audience of young and old.
How do they fly in the confined space of the Watermill? You'll just have to go and see for yourself.
Peter Pan continues at the Watermill Theatre until 4 January 2015