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  • Chris O'Rourke

Peter Pan

Liam Bixby and Clare Dunne in Peter Pan. Image by Ros Kavanagh


Dress it in Katie Davenport’s scrumptious costumes, colour it in Niall McKeever’s graffiti sprayed set, wash it with Sarah Jane Shiels’ gorgeous lighting, it doesn’t change a thing. Whatever its literary aspirations, Roddy Doyle’s version of J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan is pure pantomime. Literally, and in the old Dublin sense of the word. Meaning something so hilariously entertaining it induces howls of delight. A result of over the top performances and a back to basics theatricality offsetting a conventional and often lacklustre retelling.

Orla Scally, Emma Rose Creaner and Aaron Katambay in Peter Pan. Image by Ros Kavanagh

For the most part Doyle’s version remains faithful to the 1953 Disney cartoon. Disney sentimentality echoed in Stefan French’s cinematic score and Johnny Edwards's sound design. Wendy Darling and her brothers, Michael and John, getting whisked away one night from their loving parents and a dog named Nana, journey to the adventurous Neverland with Peter Pan. As Wendy becomes a surrogate mother telling stories to a little rascals gang of Lost Boys, Peter, like an absent father, refuses to grow up. Fighting the despicable Captain Hook, saving the distinctly irate Tinkerbell, rescuing the totemic Tiger Lily, and taking all the credit for doing so. Till the Darlings make the long, shipless journey home. But not before the crocodile appears in all his tick tocking glory.

Peter Pan. Image by Ros Kavanagh

Talk of transposing the tale to early twentieth century Dublin looks like lazy publicity. Dublin amounting to “howya bud” accents propping up a hatfull of weak references. A dying for Ireland routine, Wendy’s grown up feelings for Peter, and Doyle’s brilliantly clever introduction in the programme hinting at what might have been had Doyle played more instead of being slavishly faithful to the original story. Relying on working class Dublinese and a roll call of clowning savants to raise textual chuckles. Working class Dubliners with servants that is. Almost as unbelieveable as having a dog for a nanny. Doyle’s normally rich vein of humorous observations suffering several blocked arteries. The story’s textual history getting in the way of a genuinely fresh, Dublin story.

Emma Rose Creaner and Liam Bixby in Peter Pan. Image by Ros Kavanagh

If Doyle’s tale isn’t all it might have been, its telling more than compensates with some audaciously delightful stagecraft. Back to basics puppetry, shadow play, and a range of circus shenanigans providing a link to the Edwardian music hall. Ned Bennett’s high octane direction brilliantly marshalling Peter Pan’s many moving parts. From the puppetry of Tinkerbell to rolls and prat falls, ingenuity looms large. Manipulated tyres, mattresses, sheets and bath tubs plant the production in old world rough housing with its tumbling, physical playfulness. Making the flying sequences so much more alive for digitally doing so much less.

Peter Pan. Image by Ros Kavanagh

Like kids attempting to outdo each other, performances are spectacularly over the top, exhibiting levels of upstaging and scene stealing unseen in decades. The eternally youthful Liam Bixby as the braggart boy who never grows old sees Peter shirk grown up responsibilities with gusto. Only to be frequently upstaged by the rest of the cast. From the wild innocence of the Darling boys, Darren Dixon (Michael) and Callum Maxwell (John) both a joy, to Emma Rose Creaner’s heart tugging Tootles, Aaron Katambay’s laconic Rasher and OrIa Scally’s clowning masterclass that is Twin 1 and 2, children are cuddly balls of cuteness brimming with endless energy. Caitríona Williams’s Wendy looking about ready for a large Chardonnay having matched her charges every step of the way. Yet the real clowns are the troupe of bewildered grown ups. Shane O’Reilly’s Mr Darling and the pirate Smee, Bryan Quinn’s endearing Nana and Seafood Thomas, Tierra Porter’s possibly dead Starkey all delight as the clock ticks menacingly. A terrific Gemma Kane as both the servant Liza and mysterious Tiger Lily adding more fuel to the hilarious fire. Yet Clare Dunne, risking being typecast as yet another dastardly villain, steals the show as Captain Hook (doubling as Mrs Darling). Dunne relishing every minute on stage, revelling in the fun of it all. As a result, so do the audience.

Liam Bixby and Clare Dunne in Peter Pan. Image by Ros Kavanagh

True, there are no songs, no dance routines, and little direct audience involvement aside from assisting one ailing fairy. But Peter Pan is stepped in the spirit of pantomime. And in the sprit of Christmas. Under Bennett’s direction, Neverland is a childhood wonderland. A colouring book of fun, flawed, fantasticalness. Allowing imagination, or memory, to fill in the gaps depending on whether you’re one of the very young or the young at heart. First impressions? Peter Pan is seasonal good fun. A joy for the family sure to run and run.

Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie in a new version by Roddy Doyle, runs at The Gate Theatre until January 14, 2024.

For more information visit The Gate Theatre

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