First produced in New York with a run on Broadway, it's taken more than five years for this high-energy prequel to the Peter Pan story to cross the Atlantic. Quite why this should be so is something of a mystery, to judge by this European premiere in Northampton's beautiful Royal Theatre.
Based on a 2006 novel, which took some freewheeling liberties with JM Barrie's tale and gave it a distinctly 21st century twist, Rick Elice's adaptation for the stage draws on the best of both worlds. Barrie's swashbuckling characters are there in their developmental stages while the whole show is performed as a knowing play-within-a-play on a stunningly recreated set design by David Woodhead.
The conceit of a group of actors telling a story with the aid of whatever they can find lying around is not a new one. The RSC did it memorably in the 1980s with Nicholas Nickleby, and indeed the link is clear to see: Roger Rees, who played Nickleby in that production, was involved in beginning to devise the stage version of Peter and the Starcatcher before his partner Elice came on board to script it.
But the fact that it's been done before takes nothing away from the brilliance of the execution, deftly handled by director Luke Sheppard. Every device available to the actors is wonderfully employed. A hatstand of green umbrellas becomes a sultry rainforest on a tropical island. A stepladder transforms into the mouth of a giant crocodile. A swish of a piece of old canvas and we're transported from grim orphanage to the high seas.
It's rough and ready, and deliberately so, and the cast of twelve fill the Royal's compact stage with life and energy from start to finish. There's a partially-formed Peter in the shape of Michael Shea, whose emergence from shunned, nameless orphan to would-be hero is perhaps the biggest transformation of the night. There are putative lost boys, ready-made pirates and an exotic location which acquires the name of Neverland as a seamless part of the plot.
Evelyn Hoskins carries the narrative thread as Molly Aster, the 13 year-old girl unwittingly caught up in a secret mission that leads to adventure and danger, and she's wide-eyed, brave and believable throughout. The whole ensemble keep the riotous, almost anarchic action rattling along tumultuously and it's relentlessly noisy, almost to the point of exhausting.
Stealing the show shamelessly is Greg Haiste as the pirate captain Black Stache who, without giving too much away, undergoes a transformation of his own. Haiste relishes every fiendish moment of the role and would be chewing the scenery if there was any. Instead he goes alarmingly, gloriously over the top, channelling a hint of Basil Fawlty and a large dose of Rik Mayall to wring the biggest laughs from the delighted audience.
It needs some tightening up around the edges, and the songs added little for me, although they did earn a Tony nomination during that Broadway run and the varied percussion performed by William Pennington creates plenty of atmosphere. There's also a niggling concern that much of the humour is mined from rather adult wordplay and references, making it potentially a bemusing experience for younger audiences.
But the infectious enthusiasm of the performers and the undeniable sense of unadulterated fun make this a rip-roaring adventure that grabs you from the opening moments and drags you unceremoniously along for the ride.