Peter & The Starcatcher
by Rick Elice
based on the novel by Dave Barry & Ridley Pearson
New York Theatre Workshop
Brooks Atkinson Theatre
New York City
Directed by Roger Rees & Alex Timbers
11th May 2012
Why do negative reviews at all? I feel you have to when it’s appropriate, in deference to the companies that get glowing reviews. So I am going to “pan” it. Yes, the bad pun is apposite. This is an enthusiastic production, with some excellent unison work by the cast of an intrinsically weak, poorly scripted play based on a dull plot. It has got away with it, and been nominated for awards because its genre is unfamiliar to American audiences. It’s also moved from off-Broadway (192 seat space) to the over 1000 seater Brooks Atkinson Theatre.
The genre is one dear to my heart: British Christmas pantomime as performed in theatres in every medium-sized town in Britain by professional companies every December and January, and by amateur companies in every small town and village. The original pantomimes draw from a small list of very familiar stories: Cinderella, Aladdin, Dick Whittington, Jack & The Beanstalk, Sleeping Beauty, Babes in The Wood and a few less frequently performed ones. The genre has been bastardized by the inclusion of pop stars and TV soap stars, and modernized with loud pop music, but the combination of story, comedy and dancing survives.
Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie was never a pantomime, but is a “seasonal entertainment” performed in the same venues and at the same times as traditional pantomimes, and recently subject to more obviously pantomime versions, though the celebrity Peter Pan (played by a currently popular girl singer) and Captain Hook have been a given for years. See review of the 2010 Poole Lighthouse production. Barrie adapted from existing concepts of Christmas entertainment, though diluted the humour and accentuated the magic. Traditional pantomime stars “a dame” (a man in obvious drag) which J.M. Barrie also eschewed. Here we got the whole cast dressed as women, or rather mermaids, at the start in act two, and a mermaid (well done with simple cloth drape).
This play is a prequel, or in Marvel / DC Comic terms “The Origin Issue” showing how Peter Pan became Peter Pan, and how Molly (Wendy’s mother in the J.M. Barrie) met him as a child. It has been lauded for its theatricality; especially the use of simple devices to create magical events. Unfortunately to a British viewer, most of these are perfectly familiar in the style: a waving rope for the sea,two big hand held lights for the crocodile (or any other monster)’s eyes. A couple of additions in this production were very good indeed. Levitating Molly by simply raising a ladder on a pivot was funny, original and also brilliantly executed. The pennant flags for crocodile teeth were good., though not unique to this production.
But it went wrong for me right from the start. The cast confuse shouting and projecting, which made it hard to distinguish what they were saying (or rather yelling) early on, and I couldn’t follow the plot. This shouting may well be the shock of moving from an intimate workshop setting to a large commercial theatre. I’ve often been highly critical of British actors doing American accents. Here they jokingly go in and out of cod-British, reasonably well, but by no means perfectly (Jolly good, though, chaps), and a head-cold isn’t the only marker of a British accent. The forced accents didn’t assist clarity, and while someone doing a silly foreign accent is funny to most viewers, it slides by without a titter if it’s your own accent and not particularly well done. The theatre acoustic, to one side of the mezzanine, is not great either
The basis of pantomime is that everyone in the audience knows the plot backwards, forwards and sideways so you can mess around to your heart’s content. Here we didn’t know the plot, not having read the novel, nor why a large cabin trunk was significant. I still don’t. I just about got that it was a pirate ship, and there was a girl, and Peter was a nameless orphan(she names him) but had no idea of how anyone else was related to her. I didn’t pick up most of the roles until near the very end.
Celia Keenan-Bolger is an appealing Molly, but the play deviates from tradition here, because Peter Pan is normally a “principal boy”, i.e. usually played by a girl dressed as a boy in tunic and tights, not a man as here.. It works better the traditional way. The very un-PC “red Indians” in Peter Pan disappear (they’re embarrassing in any production nowadays) with the Indian chief (or “heap big chief”) replaced by a man in a top hat with a funny undefinable foreign accent. He is called Fighting Prawn. No, I didn’t laugh at that one either.
Prisoners on the island. Fighting Prawn in top hat
The stage set was a ship in act one, with square climbing rows as rigging sufficing to indicate that … then the wooden planks with a row of broken planks across the back visible in act two was so reminiscent of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Shipwreck Trilogy that the massive contrast in quality was accentuated. But the set was good and economic.
The script is truly dire. The ‘tough and ruthless’ v ‘rough and toothless’ lines were ones I heard as a child. I wrote them into several amateur pantomimes myself. I last heard them in 2011 (in an amateur Peter Pan, not reviewed, in fact). They’re designed to elicit a groan of recognition rather than a laugh. They didn’t time them right either. It’s a classic one-two:
I’m Captain Hook / The Sheriff of Nottingham / Abanazer, I’m tough and ruthless
I’m (whoever is the sidekick, here Smee), I’m rough and toothless.
The secret of panto (though J.M. Barrie ignored it too) is adult lines which the kids don’t understand peppered through the script. The jokes are either lavatorial for the kids or sexual humour for the adults. Here we got fart jokes, which are traditional. We also got a few New York City aren’t-I-clever lines (“it’s like looking for a melody in a Philip Glass opera”). But I smiled just twice in the evening, and both were physical visual jokes. When the pirate Black Stache (who is to become Captain Hook) loses his hand, it is extremely funny and very well performed by Christian Borle. By the way, this is a revised review. When I first wrote it on my iPad, I had assumed this was the character called Captain Scott. No, I really didn’t follow it well!
Curtain call, Molly next to Black Stache
I’m slightly fed up with people channeling Groucho Marx in appearance (this is the third in a year) but for me he single-handely ran the show. It greatly improved whenever he got on stage and he deserved the far greater volume of applause for his final bow. His performance was the alpha and omega of what was good in the show. He’s a superb physical comic actor. No one else stood out for me, either as excellent or as incompetent. They were all “OK to good” while the direction of unison movement and the stage blocking was all very good. The ongoing sound effects were added live and done well, but the couple of songs weren’t memorable.
MacKenzie Crook on the radio was talking about the contrast between wildly enthusiastic American audiences and reserved British audiences, and how it affected your timing when you moved from London to Broadway and back to London in the same production. Watching the number of people standing and applauding at the end, I’d say either the genre has strong possibilities for American audiences who don’t know it, or Broadway standing applause is easily obtained. From reading critics, I don’t think that’s true, so a lot of people enjoyed it … though the greatest enthusiasm was front orchestra rather than upstairs, which is often a sign of an inadequately projected play. The people who could hear perfectly liked it better. I’m feeling guilty about negativity, so I turned to the Hollywood Reporter review. I quote:
But in scaling up from a theater seating less than 200 to one with a capacity of around 1,000, the show’s larkish pantomime spirit has become strained. The cast – versatile and likable though they are – now have to work harder to keep the constant volley of silly jokes and winking contemporary anachronisms airborne, and the effort shows. Charm is a fragile commodity.
I don’t think this play would stand a chance in London (a rash statement begging to be proven wrong, as such statements always are). That’s not a chauvinistic boosting opinion of British theatre, but a point about a well-known genre. There was a lot of effort from the cast, and from the director, poured onto a text that to me wasn’t worth doing. OK, nine out of ten for Black Stache eight for general gusto and verve and unison work, but five at most for line delivery, and a dismal one or two for script.
The free ‘playbill’ to everyone attending was much appreciated. OK, they can afford it at Broadway prices, and advertising pays for it, but it was as large as many a British £4 theatre programmes.