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January 5, 2014 9:05 pm
The timing is neat: Phil Willmott’s new musical opened on January 2, forging a link between Christmas shows and the centenary commemorations of the first world war. Willmott (who scripted, composed and directed) picks up on the Peter Pan story and, reflecting that many of those on the battlefield would have read it, transports the crowing boy-wonder to the trenches – or rather George Llewelyn Davies, one of the five brothers for whom J.M. Barrie wrote the story. The main substance of the show is George’s troubled dream in which he and Peter become one, as his subconscious grapples with his ghastly circumstances and what it means to be a man. Meanwhile Willmott suggests that for an entire generation, what started out as “an awfully big adventure” became a terrible jolt into adulthood.
It’s a bold undertaking – the bolder and more powerful for being staged in this tiny venue – buoyed by compassion for the millions of “lost boys” of the war and rage at the senseless slaughter. But while Willmott’s proposal that Edwardian society ill-prepared young men for the complexities of maturity is interesting and his interweaving of dream, fiction and reality innovative, in practice the show becomes bogged down by straining to wed the dream narrative too closely to the Peter Pan story.
In George’s restless dream, each of the Pan characters struggles to grow up, with the adult Lost Boys escaping from starchily regulated jobs into regular drunken blow-outs, John Darling embracing Jungian psychoanalysis and Michael finding a home in the music hall. So far so good, but Tinkerbell becoming an exploited prostitute and Captain Hook an opium addict feel like a twist too far, even if they do illustrate the seamier side of Edwardian life. The script is peculiarly uneven, swinging from insightful to bizarrely trite, and the tone of the piece wanders uncertainly in places. Less plot might have enabled the show to explore its themes in more depth.
That said, the conceit itself is a strong one. The music, drawing on styles of the period, is beautifully delivered by three onstage musicians (keyboard, cello and clarinet), and while some songs are witty (“Jungian Dream Analysis”) others are suddenly touching (a trio by three nurses on coping with the horrors of the front). Willmott’s staging is polished and the fine 12-strong cast, led by Steven Butler’s agonised George, fill the space with song.
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