It was only last year that the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society showed us their Murder at Haversham Manor and what a thrilling night of drama and suspense that was. Their immensely flexible approach to riding the storm when things occasionally went wrong showed them to be troupers beyond compare, and so to endorse their true spirit of The Show Must Go On, we thought we would return for their Christmas play (not a panto) Peter Pan, which due to an administrative oversight, would be staged in February.
Fifteen minutes before curtain up things were still – shall we say – falling into place. The stage manager and his ASMs were still searching for a hammer, handing our hard hats, and getting the people behind us to tear paper up into really tiny pieces – because without it, the snowflakes would be too large. Nevertheless, there was still a sense of hope and confidence crackling in the air as one of the stars of the play, Francis Beaumont, joined Mrs Chrisparkle and me for a chat in the stalls. Not just us, he walked around welcoming everyone to the play; a very thoughtful and personal touch. He seemed extremely happy when he discovered a celebrity in the front row, Simon, who apparently had appeared in Skyfall, and we all sang him Happy Birthday, before discovering it wasn’t his birthday after all. Chris Bean, the dactor, that’s a director and actor to you and me, was also scurrying around in a very fetching Pringle top (the woollen mill, not the crisps), before officially welcoming us all from the stage together with co-director, I mean Assistant Director, Robert Grove.
If you’ve seen The Play That Goes Wrong – and if you haven’t you really need to get on over to the Duchess Theatre – you might be asking yourself, do I also need to see Peter Pan Goes Wrong, are they basically the same show in a different setting? Well, the answers are yes and yes. Once again the excruciatingly awful actors of the CPDS are to be seen desecrating the beautiful Royal theatre with their ham-fisted performances, overweening self-belief, and a set that has a mind of its own. This kind of humour is not for everyone. It is hugely slapstick, totally lacking in subtlety, and encourages you to laugh at things that in many respects one ought not to find funny – like an out of control wheelchair. It is also immensely likeable, enormously character-driven, and performed with a degree of accuracy, timing and all-round skill of Bolshoi proportions (if they were doing dance). Which they’re not.
It may be easy to dismiss the play itself as being just a box of tricks, but actually it’s extraordinarily well written and beautifully structured. Something in the text and performance encourages the audience to shout back and participate in the play in a way you wouldn’t dream of in any other comedy; it’s like a mutual confidence between cast and audience grows organically as the show develops. There’s a wonderful scene where Laurence Pears, playing Dactor Chris Bean, playing Captain Hook, is really losing it. So many things have gone wrong and the audience are laughing at him when he’s not meant to be funny. “Stop laughing at me!!!” he bellows, like the spoiltest brat in the school, which only makes us laugh at him more. He starts picking on individual members of the audience who have heckled in previous scenes, but they only heckled because the play welcomed it. “It’s not a panto!” he exclaims. “Oh yes it is” we all reply. And so on. As we learn more about what they all think of actor Max Bennett, our sympathy for him grows so that eventually his every movement is greeted with enthusiastic support and appreciation – note to audience, it isn’t real, it is just a play. They must have a Plan B for a smaller or less enthusiastic audience, but they certainly didn’t need it last night (the Royal was pretty much full, as it is for the rest of the run).
Technically it’s a dream of a show, with so much of the humour depending on the unreliability of the set. From falling trees to collapsing bunks, an overly choppy sea to an amazing revolving set that just refuses to stop, no potential technical disaster is overlooked or under-utilised as a comic weapon. And that’s even before we mention anything to do with flying. Quite rightly the three technicians join the cast on stage for the curtain call – the actors would be lost without them. Everyone works together so seamlessly for the show to succeed – mentally they must be all joined at the hip, if that’s not a mixed metaphor.
Just as in Noises Off, actors play characters playing characters, which gives a double level of fun. The pompous Jonathan (Peter Pan) and the dreadfully over-acting Sandra (Wendy) are in a relationship but useless Max (Nana the Dog and the Crocodile) fancies her something rotten. Added to which, Chris (George Darling and Captain Hook)’s mum appears to have taken up with Robert (Starkey, and for this performance, Michael). Meanwhile, Dennis (John and Jukes) still can’t remember his lines without technical backup, Annie, now upgraded from ASM, (Mary Darling, Lisa, Tinkerbell and Cecco) has too many roles to cope with the costume changes, and Lucy (Tootles) is so traumatised by falling set early on so that she can barely speak and is forced to spend the rest of the performance in a wheelchair. And all that’s before you actually dig down to the Peter Pan level.
The cast are fantastic throughout, and it would be wrong to single out any individual performer, so I’m going to mention them all! Laurence Pears’ Chris is a fantastic study of finite ability stretched too far, patronising both cast and audience with his self-obsessed status. Cornelius Booth makes an ebullient Robert, with a penchant for parking in the ambulance spots, a marvellously whiskery young Michael, enthusiastically encouraging the boys and girls to cheer (which Chris the dactor finds so distasteful) and is comic genius as the unintelligible Starkey, flapping his boat in all angles to knock down anyone in his orbit. He performs some great physical comedy – I particularly loved the scene where he was constantly trying to pick up his hat, his pipe and his paddle. Matt Cavendish’s boisterous Max, too useless an actor to be trusted with speaking roles, loves to come out of character to take additional bows like an old ham, and Leonie Hill’s Sandra was obviously told she was extremely gifted just once too often in her childhood, with her wonderfully over-the-top gestures.
James Marlowe plays a continually perplexed looking Dennis, desperately relying on electronic prompts to remember his lines, no matter how obviously irrelevant they are; Harry Kershaw is a splendidly refined Francis, narrating from the book at all angles and playing Smee as the feyest pirate you’ve ever met. Alex Bartram is a clean cut Jonathan, a spirited Peter Pan with no control over his flying, and Rosie Abraham a resilient and positive Lucy, for whom physical trauma and temporary paralysis are no reason not to tread the boards.
But I think my two favourite performances were from Chris Leask as the tireless Stage Manager Trevor, with a high enough impression of himself to wear a T-shirt that reads “Trevor”, but is hopeless enough to spill beer all over the mixer desk to completely destroy the sound plot. The running gag of his ever-increasing builder’s bum was brilliantly well done. And I really loved Naomi Sheldon as Annie, on a constant quest to change costume, becoming less sweet and more vindictive with every passing disaster.
We both found it hysterically funny, and I am in absolute admiration for the proficiency and accuracy of the physical comedy of all the performers. It’s a wonderful piece of insanely entertaining stupidity; touring till July, but I doubt that will be the last we see of it. Hurrah for Mischief Theatre!
Production photos by Alastair Muir.