United Kingdom Peter Pan – The Never Ending Story – Wembley Arena, London, 2.1.2014. (JPr)
Peter Pan: Sandor Stürbl
Wendy: Lilly-Jane Young
Captain Hook: Wim Van Den Driessche
Smee: Nordin De Moor
Tinker Bell: Stacey Solomon
Mr Darling: Juan Gerlo
Mrs Darling: Sara De Smedt
Geert Allaert – artistic director
Luc Petit – director and concept
Matt Dunkley – musical director
Kaat Tilley – costume designer
Martino Müller – choreograph
Matt Biffa – music supervisor
Geert Bouckaert – additional song lyrics
Peter Pan – The Never Ending Story flew into Wembley as part of its ‘World Arena Tour’. Sometimes the hyperbole of how the publicity describes what you will see does not match the reality in the theatre – or, as here, the vast barn-like Wembley Arena. However, you will see this show described as ‘a high-flying, hi-tech fantasy adventure that combines the drama and excitement of live theatre with the epic visuals of a blockbuster movie. Pinch yourself as you watch Peter Pan fly high above the stage without wires – a world first in theatre! Marvel at the spectacular scenery, brought to life by state-of-the-art digital imaging – Neverland like never before.’ For once – to use the near-immortal phrase – this musical extravaganza does exactly ‘what it says on the tin’!
I have to admit that I am usually an easy audience for J M Barrie’s timeless – in many ways – story and when very young remember being taken to the famous pantomime version put on annually at the Scala Theatre, in London’s Charlotte Street (off Tottenham Court Road), before the venue’s demise in 1969. Barrie was a Scottish author and dramatist and his Peter Pan first appeared in 1902 in the book Little White Bird. Soon after he wrote the play Peter Pan, which was a great success and on the back of its popularity, Barrie produced a children’s book, Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens (adapted from Little White Bird), then a full novel based on the play, entitled Peter and Wendy (1911). It is generally well-known that the adventures of Peter Pan were inspired by Barrie’s friendship with ‘the Davies boys’, the children of Arthur and Sylvia Llewelyn Davies, whom he met while walking in Kensington Gardens – he subsequently named several of the characters after them. Barrie would entertain them by wiggling his ears and eyebrows and thrilling them with wildly imaginative stories that would later form the basis for Peter Pan’s adventures in Neverland.
Most of the familiar elements of the story are in place in this version: as the Darling children lie in bed, Peter Pan flies in to watch them sleep. His presence disturbs the family dog, alerting Mrs Darling. Fearing discovery Peter flees, but leaves his shadow behind in the commotion. After returning to the Darling house to retrieve his shadow, Peter wakes Wendy, Michael and John and persuades them to join him on a magical flight to Neverland where they encounter the Lost Boys, Indians (still the Pickaninnies and not ‘Native Americans’!), mermaids and pirates in a series of adventures. Not everyone is thrilled by the arrival of Peter and his new friends and the villainous Captain Hook hatches a scheme to catch and kill them with the help of his pirates. They launch an audacious attack and capture Wendy, Michael and John and with the children in his grasp, Hook lays a trap that seems certain to lead to Peter Pan’s agonising death. As Peter Pan sleeps, Hook mixes a deadly poison which he pours into his medicine bottle that he is sure Peter will drink when he wakes … or so Hook thinks. Before Peter Pan stirs Tinker Bell appears, she was banished because of jealousy over Peter and Wendy but now by drinking the poison she puts her own life in danger to save her beloved friend. Will she survive? In the show’s climax Peter Pan boards the Jolly Roger pirate ship to help free Wendy, Michael and John and challenges Hook to a final, dramatic duel that only one can survive. Who will that be – I am sure you know?
I continue to go to pantomimes as a Christmas tradition each year and Peter Pan –The Never Ending Story was a perfect antidote to a so-so offering locally in Southend. (The comic and ventriloquist appearing were blameless but it also featured Craig Revel Horwood of Strictly Come Dancing fame in drag relying too often on his catchphrase ‘Fab-u-lous’. I am sure he is a great choreographer and director – I hear great things about his Fiddler on the Roof that is currently touring – but as a performer himself he was ‘ap-pal-ling’!) Now in this Peter Pan there was all the magic that twentieth first-century technological advances could provide. The story unfolds on what is a huge open book on the floor of the vast set and against a constantly changing, scene-setting, computer-generated, projected backdrop – I wish some opera production could be as inventive as this. Towards the end you really could believe you were on the pirate ship against the swelling seas.
There is an international troupe of performers, not only the acting and singing principals, but assorted acrobats and stuntpeople, who often appear from beneath the platform or fly above it on harnesses – or even without wires on powerful blasts of air. With loads of lighting and sound effects, as well as, pyrotechnics, spectacle is everything and occasionally it all seems a little chaotic but much fun was had by all, including me. I felt some of the intimacy of the original story was lost – Mr and Mrs Darling are reduced to mere cyphers – but by the time we were all resorted to stand and proclaim ‘I believe in fairies!’ in order to save Tinker Bell’s life I was only too happy to join in. Add to this – and both much larger-than-life – a cute dog, Nana, and a hungry-for-Hook Tic Toc crocodile and there is something for all ages. In truth, it is part Cirque du Soleil and part large-scale spectacular pop concert; indeed as Saartje Van Houtte’s Mermaid rises several meters into the air it could have been a Lady Gaga concert and I was surprised she sang Hooverphonic’s ‘Mad about you’ and not one of her songs.
The ‘concept’ is such that it has to be easily transferable from country to country so there is no dialogue to speak of(!) and the story is narrated by Tinker Bell and I assume this allows it to be translated for the different countries on the tour. The score has some new music but is mainly special arrangements – by Matt Dunkley (the musical inspiration behind the hit movie Moulin Rouge) – of classic pop tunes including highlights such as Madness’s ‘Our House’, ‘One Day I’ll Fly Away’ (also featured in Moulin Rouge), Alphaville’s ‘Forever Young’, Seal’s ‘Kiss from a Rose’, Robbie Williams’s ‘Angels’ and Rod Stewart’s ‘Sailing’. With a nod to our more culturally aware cousins on the continent Captain Hook only sings mainly operatic arias, ‘Largo al factotum’, ‘Nessun dorma’ and some Gilbert and Sullivan (‘Major-General’s Song’) revised to tell his background story. All the songs are sung live against a pre-recorded soundtrack involving a full symphonic orchestra.
The cast, who are mostly from Belgium where this show originated but included a handful of other nationalities, are all young, energetic and extremely talented. They are led by two fine singers, Sandor Stürbl (from The Netherlands) and Lilly-Jane Young (from the UK!) as the high-spirited Peter and mumsy Wendy. Together this often high-flying couple have an engaging and totally believable chemistry and it would only be the most hard-hearted of people who will not be caught up in their story. Overshadowing them is the immensely flamboyant presence of Wim Van Den Driessche’s Hook who sings with a pleasing baritone voice.
Much of the publicity – at least for these London performances – focuses on Stacey Solomon who has come to prominence through appearances on UK TV shows such as The X Factor and I’m A Celebrity … Get Me Out Of Here!’ As Tinker Bell she was mostly just the narrator and did well considering even Dame Judy Dench would have trouble making much of what she was given to read. She somewhat belatedly appears above the stage – after we had all brought her back to life – to (very appropriately) sing Westlife’s ‘You Raise Me Up’ and this truly did seem a magical moment. When she concluded the evening with the words ‘As long as you believe in fairies magic will fly through your window and the story will never end’. I – along with probably a few thousand others in Wembley Arena – felt we had been sprinkled with real fairy dust!