The story starts in a shabby and damp flat in Te Aro Valley, where poor, lonely widow (awwwww) Katie Pie (Gavin Rutherford) resides with her daughter, the Eco Warrior Princess, Xena Lily (Bronwyn Turei). Xena seeks to avenge her mother by battling the malevolent yet charismatic landlord, Captain Hook (Simon Leary). We’re then introduced to Wendy (Camilla Besley) and her acrobatic dog, Nana (Manuel Solomon); the child and pet Katie babysits while the rich parents, Mr and Mrs Darling (Leary and Turei respectively), continue their lives as socialites. Katie shares with us the story of Peter Pan (Cary Stackhouse), who then visits the Darling household to take Wendy to Neverland, which happens to look a lot like Wellington! Once there, Peter introduces her to his motherless Lost Boys (Ben Emerson and Manuel Solomon), the highly comic duo who keep Peter company. It’s not long before Katie chases down Wendy and the Lost Boys, but all suddenly find themselves in the middle of a tussle, with Peter in the red corner and Hook and his first-mate Smee (Jeff Kingsford-Brown) in the blue. Will Peter and his team prevail? Will Katie find new love? Will rent prices ever drop? These are some of the questions one can expect to encounter, and all are answered with a mix of magic, jest, and wit.
The pantomime ticks most of the boxes, but it lacks character development, specifically from Wendy and Peter. It feels as though both fail to change or grow as time passes, remaining nearly exactly as they were at the beginning. Peter spends the entire play as an arrogant and selfish boy who proclaims he’s the reason the group continues to succeed, even when it’s the teamwork that pushes them through. It’s very clear Wendy disapproves of the way Peter treats her and the others, such as her disdain when Peter suggest he’s brought her to Neverland to cook, clean, and care, but these comments never evolve into action, with Wendy making a comment or two, but nothing she or the others do ever seems to be enough to facilitate change in Peter’s disposition. There’s even a beautiful, stunning, mermaid-clad rendition of Aretha Franklin’s Respect, where Xena and Wendy take the stage as a reaction to Peter’s assumptions about the roles of women (which I’ll expand on later). But nothing comes of it; Peter brushes the remains of the patriarchy back under his rug and continues the way he is. So, it ends up feeling all for nought. With the main characters never really developing, it prevents themes like these from shining.
Peter Pan’s musical elements are pop songs familiar to the audience, but as they are rather than parodies. Separating itself from your regular ole panto, it’s a refreshing sight, and when combined with the show’s intense, incandescent choreography (perhaps a collaborative effort between cast and Leigh Evans, who was in charge of musical staging), it creates a theatrical marriage. The women clapping back at Peter Pan’s misogyny with Respect is the best example of this, and the example that continues to return to mind. Turei and Besley control and own the massive Circa One stage accompanied by the vogueing and Beyonce-like moves of Lost Boys Peter “Dunnie” ReDunneDant (Ben Emerson) and Hone HadaParty (Manuel Solomon) AND a chorus of mermaid puppets that pop up in support of Xena and Wendy. It’s also incredibly enjoyable to watch Musical arranger and director Michael Nicholas Williams during the performance because every moment you catch his eye, he supports the cast with his own voice and plays his keyboard with great energy. His positioning on stage makes him a part of the performance, and he meets the energy just right.
Peter Pan owes much of it’s magic to the fervently talented performers, who, importantly, look like they’re having just as much fun--if not more--than we are! As pantomime dame Katie Pie, Rutherford is truly in his element; his experience and generosity is incredibly enticing. Rutherford has clear expectations of the audience, and has no problem throwing shade when we don’t bite, and it always amplifies the comedy instead of feeling off-putting. Leary gets his hook stuck in an… interesting place during opening night’s performance, stealing the spotlight and leaving the audience in raucous laughter for a good five minutes. How Rutherford navigates the situation, by pointing out just how long we’ve been laughing and address Leary as a performer rather than in-character, amplifies the comedy ten-fold, and shows just how well he adapts his role and action to the flow of show.
Emerson and Solomon, as the comical Lost Boys, ensure the stage maintains its energy, even during the softer moments. The pair are a marvel together, always finding opportunities to work together in creating the comedy. When we first meet the pair, they have an unfortunate accident with arrow and Wendy, which leaves the pair noticeably stressed and concerned as they scurry from point to point, breathing heavily, staring at one another intensely, silently praying Peter won’t find out or that they haven’t killed the poor girl. Then, there’s the bedtime story Wendy tells them; as they excitedly tuck themselves into bed, Wendy sits beside the pair, returning the innocence they’ve lost to their lives. Their incredibly excited disposition with wide eyes and massive smiles says it all.
The design elements all help to reinforce the transformative magic of Peter Pan. Jennifer Lal’s lighting design is flooded with soft blues and greens when we’re near the sea or drifting into the dreamy moments, but it bursts out with sharp ambers, pinks, and yellows to bring even more life to the fight sequences and musical numbers. John Hodgkins’ set transforms with a few pushes (and, to a small degree, the aid of projection) to relocate the action. The large wooden blocks that sit across the back of the stage in various sizes serve as acrobatic platforms, a collection of large rocks sitting on the Waterfront, and even Hook’s ship. It’s rather liberating to see a more simple approach here because of how well it’s utilised. Sheila Horton aids with her costume design, and most spectacular it is. A full-fledged pirate number with seadog choreography and a cast clad in red and white pirate garb, complete with all the boots and hats and hooks, opens the show. And even this early into the night, Horton shows us how she adds to the magic. The show’s projection work provides backdrops to help the audience picture the surrounding scenery. It’s gimmicky at times since it’s not otherwise integrated, but moments of simple brilliance, like a subtle movement of the screen to replicate the ripple of rising waves, make me consider how else it could be used.
Peter Pan transports its audience to a magical Wellington, which makes you realise this windy lil’ city isn’t so bad. Peter Pan is easy to follow, and concentrates on showing the great things one can achieve by working in tandem with others. However, it’s weak characterisation prevents it from making more of a statement about it’s how it’s different from ‘regular pantomime’ despite the clear decision to deviate, and fails its otherwise inspiring female characters. The energetic, eccentric, and effervescent performers give the stage their everything, and when combined with the exceptional musical direction, awe-inspiring choreography, and captivating design, Peter Pan both enchants and entertains.
Audiences can catch Peter Pan at Circa Theatre; they are taking a break over Christmas, but the pantomime does continue on into the new year. Check the Circa Theatre website out for details and showtimes.
NB: Some administrative and editorial issues delayed the posting of this review. Art Murmurs and the reviewer would like to apologise to the cast and crew of Peter Pan, and hope they continue to have a successful, enjoyable season.