GREAT Ormond Street Hospital was famously left the rights to Peter Pan by J M Barrie, and even if the actual copyright may have lapsed, most versions of this story still honour this, and there is a whole page dedicated to GOSH in the second (and fairly normal) half of the programme for Mischief Theatre’s second play that goes wrong. The first half is a fictional programme for the play within the play – the production of Peter Pan by the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society, and even if you do not usually buy one, I would recommend this one, for the excellent comedy writing alone.
The first play, which visited Bath last year, continues to amuse and entertain audiences in London’s West End, with its falling-down set, misinterpretation of lines by temporary replacements for otherwise-disposed actors, and all round slapstick of the highest order.
I was concerned that this take on Barrie’s timeless tale of the boy who wouldn’t grow up would just apply the same jokes to a different script, but it was refreshing to see so many new and varied pieces of slick stagecraft and comedy. The timing is perfect, from tiny moments such as a stage weight falling when a door opens to a full scale pitch battle taking place through, above and inside a bedroom, a forest glade and a pirate ship.
There are obvious pieces of technical wizardry which offer so much to this basic idea – take the flying of characters, or a revolving stage, and make it go wrong. It would have been easy to rely on these technical malfunctions, but this play does so much more than that: as well as performers who would not be out of place with Cirque Du Soleil given their physical strength and dexterity, and a cast and crew who are timed to absolute perfection, there is depth and subtlety in the writing and direction which gradually works its magic on the audience, to the point where a young man playing the part of a young man playing the part of a crocodile gets complete sympathy, laughter, sighs and applause from all over the auditorium. Yes, the biggest ovation is for an actor playing a tiny part not very well, but of course he is doing it on purpose.
The professionalism of the actors playing the cast and crew is such that we feel for them, we are concerned as the mythology of what is happening outside the play gradually unfolds; we sympathise with the underdog and hate the villain. This play is so cleverly constructed that the technical mishaps are impressive, funny, scary, and so exciting to witness, but it is the humanity that draws us in and maintains our attention.
This is not just a gimmick, this is great theatre, great entertainment all round, and I look forward to whatever next “goes wrong” from the team at Mischief Theatre. If they have any more irons in their fire (I heard talk of a Nativity in the bar) they need to strike before they cool down.