Shoring up the world against cosmic chaos: the fun of Peter Pan Goes Wrong, a review

Peter Pan Goes Wrong, by arrangement with Mischief Theatre Worldwide in association with Citadel Theatre. Photo by Eric Kozakiewicz Photography.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“All the world is made of faith and trust and pixie dust.” 

True, J.M. Barrie, the creator of the boy who wouldn’t grow up, was not actually alluding to the world of live theatre in this inspirational declaration from Peter Pan. But, heck, he might have been. As you’ll see in Peter Pan Goes Wrong, the very funny production currently exploring the extreme flimsiness of faith, trust, pixie dust, and a lot of other theatrical staples — like the suspension of disbelief or, well, the suspension of anything — on the Citadel mainstage. 

Peter Pan Goes Wrong is the inspiration of the English comedy company Mischief Theatre, experts at mining the disaster potential of any live theatre venture for comic gold. And with J.M. Barrie’s indelible fantasy adventure, creators Henry Lewis, Henry Shields and Jonathan Sayer have a lot to work with, as this North American premiere production (a Citadel/ Vancouver Arts Club collaboration) directed by Mischief’s Adam Meggido, vividly attests. Multiple locations including an exotic one only accessible by air, a lagoon with mermaids and a crocodile, a boat, kid characters, period costumes, sword-fighting, A DOG … what could possibly go wrong?   

You’ll watch, in something like awe, as such old theatrical truisms as “it’ll be there on the night,” or “break a leg” get dismantled. And you’ll listen to the sweet sound of a live audience laughing out loud through their masks. It hasn’t been heard much across the land of late. And it’ll warm your heart. It did mine.

You’ve got to feel for the earnest theatre-loving amateurs of the Cornley University Drama Society, who are putting on Peter Pan. Even when you arrive in the theatre, the stage management team is already getting panicky. They’re scrambling back and forth, to and fro off the stage and into the house, to shore up last-minute malfunctions — flickering lights, an actor late for his call, a problem with one of the house seats, a missing hammer. Which brings us to the eternal question: can live theatre be brought to its knees by a short-circuit? I leave this with you, dangling in the air like the eternal boy with the jaunty green cap. 

Anyhow, as the show opens, “co-director” Robert (Chris Cochrane) is already stalling for time, explaining that the budgetary limitations of last year’s festive production, Jack and the Bean, have been eradicated by an infusion of cash from a cast member’s uncle. The production we’re about to see will be lavish, he assures. According to director Chris, played with actor-ly loft by Andrew MacDonald-Smith, Robert isn’t co-, he’s only assistant-director. And besides, this isn’t some sort of panto, god forbid, it’s a serious play. 

Under the energetic ministrations of the Cornley University Dramatic Society, the much-loved tale of the Darling children who hive off to Neverland with a strangely ageless boy is at risk from every possible angle. Thanks to set designer Simon Scullion, doors stick and then open too suddenly, windows get unhinged, furniture collapses, fuses blow, the forest of Neverland gets unhinged, the Narrator’s chair has a mind of its own, props go missing and reappear too late, the sound feed from backstage (designed by Ella Wahström) doesn’t get turned off and reveals way too much. It’s a running gag that never stops running (and feels a little long, in truth).  

The trap door? Captain Hook’s hook? I’ll leave the sense of infinite possibility with you, my friends. Ditto frantic costume changes (designer: Roberto Surace) whereby the regally charming Mrs. Darling — Annie, played by Belinda Cornish — re-enters mere seconds later as the maid.

Peter Pan Goes Wrong, by arrangement with Mischief Theatre Worldwide in association with Citadel Theatre. Photo by Eric Kozakiewicz Photography.

And that’s before the flying starts. Peter Pan (cocksure Jonathan, played by Jamie Cavanagh) makes a memorable entrance chez Darling. The secrets of his arrival are safe with me, but it’s hilarious.  

The ensemble is a veritable hotbed of mismatched talents and upstagers, colliding egos, and romantic entanglements. Sandra (Alexandra Brynn) plays Wendy, apparently a veteran of too many physical theatre workshops, as if she’s in a music video, all cheerleader pelvic thrusts, bouncing on her white runners (choreographer: Christine Bandelow). Since Dennis (Alexander Ariate) can’t remember any of his lines as John, he’s been fitted with outsized headphones so he can be prompted from backstage. He cheerfully bellows everything he hears, including the stage directions. And little Michael, played by Max played by Oscar Derkx, is dazed by the thrill of charming an audience, infatuated with his own newly discovered skills as an improviser. They’re all very funny. And Meggido’s Canadian cast has the extra tickle of layering English accents of varying degrees of absurdity on to the Cornley thesps.  

Peter Pan Goes Wrong, by arrangement with Mischief Theatre WorldWide, in association with Citadel theatre. Photo by Eric Kozakiewicz Photography.

As the self-important Mr. Darling and then Captain Hook, MacDonald-Smith is riotous playing the pompous actor who feels certain he’s the only really serious performer in the show. And naturally, a lion’s share of pratfalls and diverse comeuppances are his to recover from. Cornish, too, turns in a top-notch comic performance as Annie, whose roles, in addition to the imperturbable Mother and the Cockney maid, include the alarmingly twinkly Tinker Bell.

The Cornley actors are nothing if not game. Kudos to April Banigan as the Narrator, a person of an unrelentingly arctic glare. She flings fairy dust at everybody with increasing ferocity as things go wrong. Her opposite number in this regard is the stage manager (Sebastian Kroon), constantly distracted by his cellphone, and always a beat or two behind in damage control.  

What can go wrong (and therefore does) is a kind of comic chain reaction of collisions, near-misses, mistimed entrances, forgotten lines, sound and lighting cues gone awry, embarrassing inadvertent revelations from backstage…. In a way it makes you realize how risky live theatre is, a kind of crazy, brave, existential bulwark against cosmic chaos.

And in a climactic battle against a stage revolve that’s broken free of all control and flings the characters willy-nilly, we see what’s winning. Meggido’s production feels a little overworked at times, but it never loses the sense of cumulating disasters happening impromptu, in real time. 

See it soon. The set may not last. 

REVIEW

Peter Pan Goes Wrong

Theatre: presented by arrangement with Mischief Theatre Worldwide in association with the Citadel/ Vancouver Arts Club

Created by: Henry Lewis, Henry Shields, Jonathan Sayer

Directed by: Adam Meggido

Starring: Alexander Ariate, April Banigan, Alexandra Brynn, Jamie Cavanagh, Chris Cochrane, Belinda Cornish, Gabriel Covarrubias, Oscar Derkx, Sebastian Kroon, Rochelle Laplante, Camille Legg, Andrew MacDonald-Smith

Running: through March 20

Tickets: citadeltheatre.com, 780-425-1820

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