The original Darling ménage could have easily been the poster family of the Edwardian era; a household of great wealth with married parents at its helm. In Birmingham Rep’s latest in-house show, Sir JM Barrie’s conjugal, biologically-related skeleton is flipped on its head – it begins with the Darling children residing in a high-rise flat under the sole care of their working-class foster mother.
Other adaptational differences include the omission of treasured favourites tribal princess Tiger Lily and canine icon Nana. These aside, it runs pretty much parallel to the original, so once Peter whisks Wendy and the boys away to Neverland, you can bank on all the crocodiles and pirate pandemonium being in there as usual.
“One of the most moving pieces of theatre you’ll find this winter”
For me, Neverland and paradise go hand in hand, and this production has the potential to transport you to your own paradise. Director Liam Steel and Georgia Christou steered the text’s adaptation, and their decision to spotlight the effects of Wendy’s social care upbringing really keeps the performance down to earth. In the midst of the whimsy that gushes throughout, the accentuation of Wendy draws you to an issue that may not otherwise receive much thought.
Similarly effective is Composer Asaf Zohar’s frolicsome score, which showcases a different musical genre with nearly every track. The pirates go heavy-metal, the Lost Boys cut shapes to EDM and, sporting a Brummie accent, Peter channels his inner 50 Cent. It helps that the songs are catchy too; you know it’s a job well done when not only the kids in the audience exit rapping the witty words “Let’s build Wendy a house”, but the press as well.
However, there are some matters that set back the show’s flight, most notably the mundane physicality of more or less the entire ensemble. Those making up Peter’s shadow initially appear so imposing in Costume Designer Laura Jane Stanfield’s all-black sleek suits, but, as is the case with the mermaid puppeteers, her work is somewhat nullified by their humdrum movements. Also a hindrance at times is Steel’s blocking, which unnecessarily impairs some sight lines. With so many gorgeous moments, it’s frustrating when some performers end up lost.
Performer-wise, the offering is excellent. To pick out a couple, Cora Tsang and Lawrence Walker are wonderful fits as Wendy and Peter respectively. Tsang portrays the maternal pressure felt by Wendy beautifully, and her chats with foster mum Jess, played by Nia Gwynne, are up there with the most powerful I’ve seen. As for Walker, it’s like watching a real-life Action Man with a personality akin to a youngster who’d spend hours on end playing with him.
Conceptually, it’s an outstanding production. It might lack the crème de la crème execution, but this reimagining is one of the most moving pieces of theatre you’ll find this winter. In true Pan style, therefore, I encourage you to head for the second star to the right – and straight on ’til the second city.