Mischief Theatre is back again with Peter Pan Goes Wrong, an effortlessly hilarious show where magic and mayhem coexist. Directed by Adam Meggido and written by Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields, this show breathes new life to a familiar tale and very cleverly finds a way to make the pantomime genre tolerable. The play mixes traditional storytelling with purposefully bad student theatre, and the end result is simply incredible.
Creates a kind of magic that doesn't need fairy dust for us to believe in it
We join the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society as they stage their new production of J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, a ‘traditional Christmas vignette’ as Chris Bean/Hook (Harry Kershaw) puts it. What ensues is far from a traditional pantomime where in between the re-telling of this classic tale, set malfunctions, the wrong sound cues are played, and enough injuries occur to make a personal injury lawyer a small fortune. The great thing about this production (and other Goes Wrong shows) is that we have no choice but to suspend our disbelief. Rationally we know the actors are all right and that there are health and safety guidelines in place to keep them safe. The actors and their reactions convince you of all the things going wrong that you have no reason to question it. It’s because everything appears so deliberate and convincing, it’s disappointing when this illusion is broken. Now, of course things happen a certain way to keep the actors safe, but when we see something like Peter Pan just tearing off curtains during a moment of chaos and panic, it does shatter the illusion that has been built up to that point. It creates a bit of a snowball effect; you start questioning and noticing more of the mechanics, consider if the actors are just going through the motions, or if it’s just too much to be believable.
Although Peter Pan Goes Wrong is pitched as a comedy, Lewis, Sayer and Shields weave the sentimentality and bittersweet nature of J.M. Barrie’s story throughout their script. The trio – although emphasising the slapstick gags – create spaces where we just can’t laugh, which does throw us off. Throughout most of the show, there’s almost a rhythm to the comedy; something is always happening or being set up, but when the ‘goes wrong’ part is pushed to the extreme, well, we can ascribe any number of synonyms of the word 'shellshocked' to how we feel. And it’s not necessarily the most chaotic scenes that do this. None of the cheesiness of pantomimes makes it into Peter Pan Goes Wrong; the only thing that indicates that it could be one is a vague mention at the start which invites in such clashes both onstage and through the 4th wall that it seems to revive the genre, or at least make it more than tolerable for those whose attitude towards pantomime is more like Chris Bean’s. This show does more to expand upon the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society lore and giving us insight into the different members themselves; how their personalities and society drama affects what happens onstage. It’s this world-building and performances by the cast that add more realism to the overall show, exploring new avenues of humour as well as a tongue-in-cheek ridicule of university societies.
The humour in Peter Pan Goes Wrong is not reliant on the obvious malfunctions that occur throughout, and it's really the reactions and comic timing of the actors themselves that we find ourselves laughing the most; in the way that they play up the jokes and give each other the time that they need for a gag to take on its full effect. Every actor appears to throw everything they have into their performance and the amount of talent onstage is incalculable; they really make this show what it is. There’s so much joy in their performances that it does shift to us; we have as much fun as they seem to, albeit at a much safer distance. Matthew Cavendish’s Max is so open and heartfelt, a real Cinderella story, if Cinderella decided to be a crocodile. His earnestness is extremely endearing, and he becomes a crowd favourite really quickly. As a former techie, it’s always fun to see tech representation in a show, and Chris Leask’s performance as Trevor really captures the cat-like spirit of tech. It's an interesting comparison to make with the rest of the cast, and even though the role is poking fun at tech, it's interesting to see just how much Leask has gotten right. He balances a kind of over eagerness to fix things with a kind of grouchy demeanour whenever he is forced out of his element, and Leask's moments prove to be a great source of amusement, to the point where we do look forward to his appearances. Nancy Zamit really is the MVP of the show. She is constantly doing something as fulfills the many demands placed on her with her multiple roles. She’s an incredibly expressive actress, and takes the lead in indicating when things go wrong, with her reactions add a lot of humour to each scene. Ellie Morris plays Lucy Grove, Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society’s newest member with crippling stage fright. It’s Lucy who is central in communicating the emotional weight in some scenes, and it's really up to her to convince us to believe. It’s impossible not to be affected by Morris' performance, because there’s such an innocent wonder and determination in her delivery that we cannot help but buy into it, no matter how much it defies rationality and medical science. Because it’s this light in a really dark place where the stakes are high (at least for a comedy show), Morris evokes a kind of wistfulness and hope that makes us more than ready to start believing in magic again. And after all, isn't that just the beauty of theatre?
The Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society has become so much part of British theatre tradition that we cannot help looking upon it with a kind of fondness. Peter Pan Goes Wrong creates a kind of magic that doesn't need fairy dust for us to believe in it.