New Critical Voices: Féidhlim Nolan
Emma Rose Creaner and Liam Bixby in Peter Pan. Image by Ros Kavanagh
In an effort to support new critical voices, I’m delighted to introduce Féidhlim Nolan who reviews Roddy Doyle's version of Peter Pan at The Gate Theatre
Stunning storybook visuals meet Panto fun in The Gate Theatre’s production of Peter Pan. In which classic Roddy Doyle Dublinese replaces the upper crust London fare of J.M. Barrie's classic tale. The titular Peter Pan bringing the Darling brood from their early twentieth century Dublin home to the magical Neverland. But this is roughly as far as Doyle's Dublin reimagining stretches as Wendy, Michael and John Darling encounter mermaids, fairies, and Peter’s urchin Lost Boys, battle pirates and the idea of growing up. All the while their parents and nanny-dog, Nana, anxiously awaiting their return.
Certain fat has been trimmed from different versions of Barrie's tale: Peter (Liam Bixby) and Wendy (Caitríona Williams) have no kiss, and Tiger Lily (Gemma Kane) invokes more Celtic mystic than Native American stereotype. But Doyle doesn’t stray far beyond the easy sell of the familiar. A quick joke about dying for Ireland slips out of left field to spark a hint of a true Hibernisation, as well as a poignant but directionless line from Tiger Lily about the “unseen” (her friends? soldiers?) children no one mourns, suggesting the possibility of social and political commentary. But this is not the show we get.
Liam Bixby and Clare Dunne in Peter Pan. Image by Ros Kavanagh
Not that the path we take is without spectacular views—and delicious spectacle. Costumes by Katie Davenport and set by Niall McKeever are riots of colour with no shying away from the bold, nor the downright silly. Every detail is used, down to paint-stained fingertips. Plus, seeing doesn’t mean not believing: no matter if the pirate ship is a bathtub or flying is achieved by grabbing a rope or just being carried by other cast members, this proud analogue theatricality adding to the thrill. Sacrificing realism, you get the sense that all the fun of the play is re-creatable by kids in the audience the second they get home. Moreover, movement director Jonah McGreevy’s fight choreography is thrilling without realistic violence, fun without undercutting the tension, with a liveliness that enthrals. Ned Bennett’s direction toys with a semi-permeable fourth wall. The iconic fairy-saving scene warranting audience participation, and performers and puppets alike at times run and whoop through the aisles to neck-craning delight. Yet despite snippets of song, there are no sing-alongs, and no shouting where the baddies are. Tinkerbell is half acted through her green puppet body, and half by her various handlers as she’s traded off between cast members throughout. There’s no attempt at a pretty-princess image, but she’s much funnier this way. Nana on the other hand is given a waggish dogsuit treatment by Bryan Quinn.
Orla Scally, Emma Rose Creaner and Aaron Katambay in Peter Pan. Image by Ros Kavanagh
An all-adult cast doesn’t stop the Lost Boys stealing the show, their humour and lively boyish energy shining. Aaron Katambay’s Rasher is a perfect sounding board for Emma Rose Creaner’s adorably endearing Tootles and Orla Scally’s incredible comic performance as both Twin 1 & Twin 2. Their clamouring, clambering chaos is met readily by the Darling boys (Darren Dixon as Micheal and Callum Maxwell as John) as they descend to true Neverland renegades. Liam Bixby, though not as doe eyed or baby faced as familiar images of the boy who never grows up, brings vital physical grace to balance the punchy comedy of the role, while Caitríona Williams’s Wendy anchors weary responsibility in enough childish fun and agency to avoid the parentified-oldest-daughter stereotype, even as a technically parentified oldest daughter. Gender-blind casting works seamlessly amongst the pirates too. Clare Dunne takes on Captain Hook with hilarious bravado and swagger alongside fearsome Starkey (Tierra Porter), Seafood Thomas (Bryan Quinn) and Smee (Shane O’Reilly). Completing the picture, Dunne, O’Reilly, and Kane return to their domestic roles as loving mother Mrs. Darling, shouty-turned-repentant dad Mr. Darling, and exasperated servant Liza, respectively.
Despite its shortcomings, Peter Pan brings the magic of theatre to life. Full of fun, wonder, and vivid colour, it’s irresistible child’s play might bring the audience back for more
Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie, in a new version by Roddy Doyle, runs at The Gate Theatre until January 14th 2024.
Féidhlim Nolan is a writer based in Dublin. He is currently studying English with Creative Writing at UCD, with a particular focus on poetry and Irish theatre.