Monday, 18 January 2016

Hook, line and sinker…

Rhys Rusbatch (Peter Pan, centre) and the Shadows – photo by Manuel Harlan/RSC

I want to always be a little boy and to have fun – says Peter – his final line in Wendy & Peter Pan (on until 31 January 2016) pretty much encapsulating (apart from the enticement of paying only a tenner for a centre Circle, front-row, ‘superseat’) my reason for being there. I needed cheering up; to reconnect with the theatre; to participate in something (a panacea, perhaps?) that would play directly to the bits of my instinctive anatomy that had been left uncommonly unchallenged by Queen Anne – i.e. my funny bone; my chuckle muscle; and the hot and cold faucets that operate my emotional waterworks. I had also entered the Pantheon that is the Royal Shakespeare Theatre – on Friday night – presuming that my grey matter, in contrast, wouldn’t get much of a work-out – after all, this was going to be a ‘childish’ (in the very best sense of the word) not-really-a-pantomime, wasn’t it? (The nearest we got to such a fabled beast, though, was Martin (the adorable Adam Gillen) – one of the most characterful members of the cast – They’re behind me, aren’t they?)

But this is the RSC at its gobsmacking best: and, therefore, nothing can – or should – be taken for granted. (You really would think I’d know better, by now. Although it is so good to be nonplussed now and then; and have your cocksure conjectures soundly quashed.) Not just a technical tour de force – which bodes well for next year’s “not-really-a-pantomime” – but an intelligent, wilful, tongue-firmly-in-cheek, almost metaphysical – I’m just expressing myself creatively through the medium of food – multi-layered, moralistic, magical mystery tour around Neverland.

Not only did we get a whole heap of humble history-lessons with a Panglossian perspective – the finest strands of feminism and suffrage – woven in (sometimes with subtlety; sometimes a little less so…) with our humour (suitable for children of all ages, etc.); but a slick social study of family dynamics infested with unabashed grief. We will have little arguments that may seem awful at the time but in the long run will only serve to develop character and bring us closer together. As with all worthwhile fairy-tales, though, any visible merriment is merely an unstable oil-slick floating on a deep lagoon of pain and darkness. It does not take much force, much of a splash, to reveal the terrors beneath. It is only a game… to die will be an awfully big adventure.

Cleverly and consciously, though – principally due to writer Ella Hickson; ably partnered by director Jonathan Munby and designer Colin Richmond (conjuring up a veritable pantechnicon of delights) – the younger the audience member, the more opaque that dankness. Not only mischief-making, wicked wisecracks and cultural references – You can’t handle the truth! – floating over the smallest ones’ heads like so many fireflies; but the fatal snicker‑snack thrust of swords (brilliantly, robustly choreographed, as always, by Terry King) having as much impact on these innocents as (I hope) Tom and Jerry.

Okay, okay – wait – slow down or you’re going to break your head. Look, stories are written by people that already know the ending, they go back and fiddle with the middle to make it match afterwards; they’re cheating. When you’re right in the middle – no one knows their aa-aardvark from their elbow.

The writing, for me, then, was just as able, as intellectually stimulating, as high-quality, as Helen Edmundson’s – with double-meanings, wily wordplay, and keen insight in abundance. She looks exactly like she might say – ‘Curly, it’s naptime – how about a little crumpet and a snooze?’ The text (and acting) is also imbued with a highly-infectious charm – cushioning you like the finest eiderdown – allied with a clear desire to portray all kinds of love as worth investing in, fighting for, risking. It looks like your face might rain. Please don’t rain, biscuit face, you’ll go all soggy.

And yet the menace (often in the shape of the sly, slithering crocodile – Captain Hook’s very own vindictive white whale – played effectively and super-creepily by the slick, double-jointed Arthur Kyeyune) is never shockingly, tick-tockingly, far away.

Characterization is exemplary – each rôle is so individually written and perfectly performed (every actor outstanding); decked out with a panoply of meaning and vigour – although there is the odd slip into stereotype. But that’s probably just me being a grumpy grown-up… – I’m sure that such devices make it easier for the kids to follow the more obvious aspects of the storylines and interactions.

The philosophical, world-weary, wrathful (and yet occasionally quite charming) Hook – The sun is setting – the evening of my life draws in – himself is played by the stupendous, soul- and sabre-rattling – and frequently immensely scary – dapper Darrell D’Silva: with a keenness more than capable of skewering any noisy, naughty children in the audience. (Just a shame, really, that it didn’t extend as far as the Circle….) Not only is this weapon polished to perfection, glinting throughout; but there was a permanent twinkle in Hook’s eyes, too, as he swung from foe to supposed friend, and back again. This is a man never to be trusted – albeit with a sentimental streak – Oh, Smee – I never knew – as wide as his evil, lecherous grin and tricorn hat.

Darrell D’Silva (Captain Hook) – photo by Manuel Harlan/RSC

And talking of twinkles, whatever jiggery-pokery was used to enable the miniaturized Tink (Charlotte Mills, in the flesh: a cheeky delight as Barbara Windsor on steroids) to fly from hand to hand, was seamlessly synchronized – just one of a myriad of transparent technical tricks that made the show so thrilling and watchable. And, therefore, however wonderful and awe-inspiring Mariah Gale is as Wendy (and she is quite rightly at the centre of so much of the action) – just the right mix of girlish innocence, studied sensibleness, joy and grit – it is the set that wows most; that prompts most of the many, many gasps of astonishment and delight.

Like Wendy and Peter (the acrobatic, joyful Rhys Rusbatch), a fair proportion of the cast spend a great deal of time soaring through the air: and from my viewpoint, not only was this frequently balletic, but also unremittingly brave – I am terribly scared of heights… – especially considering the glitch experienced earlier in the run of this mechanically-daunting production. The coordination and concentration required to keep every single cast member, prop, gizmo, bit of set… in perpetual motion is magnificently overwhelming (and must be completely knackering for those behind, under, above, the scenes…) – but, on the night, invisible in their fluidity.

Mariah Gale (Wendy) – photo by Manuel Harlan/RSC

This play is called Wendy & Peter Pan. Why is that?
When I read the original book and play again I was struck by how much fun the boys were having and how Wendy had very few choices outside of just ‘playing mother’. That was one of the elements that didn’t seem very true to today’s world. I was interested to see what the story looks like told from Wendy’s perspective – what does Wendy want and how is it her Neverland as much as it is for the boys.
– Ella Hickson: Q&A

I’m not utterly convinced by the parallels drawn between Wendy’s plight and Mrs Darling’s earthbound sojournings – but the narrative arcs, on the whole, work well; this is as fresh an interpretation as I think I’ve ever seen; and the audience is never very far away from those traditional oohs, aahs, titters, guffaws and shocked silences (as well as frequent tugs on the heartstrings, and an occasional stir of the old noggin).

You could have left your brain at home, though, quite easily, and still enjoyed the show: letting the laughter flow over you like the incoming tide (eroding the sandcastle of your cynicism…). Two nights later, and I’m still buzzing with the childish thrill of it all! Stupendous energy; wizardry and humour! What more could you possibly want?

I’d just like cake… – once cake is in your head it’s very difficult to think of anything else.

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