Writer: J.M. Barrie
Adaptor: Andy Byron
Director: Dan Meigh &Bryony Thomas
Reviewer: Brian Gorman
I love the Off The Ground Theatre company, and it’s been my great pleasure and privilege to see many of their exuberant outdoor productions over the years. Operating a strong youth policy, the company never fails to unearth new young talent, mixing with a few seasoned professionals to present regular open air events with an emphasis on good old-fashioned fun.
On a very damp evening behind Alexanders Jazz Theatre bar in Chester, and in the shadows of the ancient walls, the scene was set for a gloriously full-bloodied couple of hours of side-splitting and nerve-jangling entertainment. Adapted from J.M. Barrie’s timeless story by Andy Byron (incidentally, his programme notes are equally hilarious), there were plenty of sly one-liners for the adults, with references to everything from Hollywood blockbusters to tv talent shows.
The tale of the little boy who refused to grow up, and his band of loveable ‘lost boys’ isolated in Neverland whiling away the days playing endless games, battling with evil pirates, and yearning for a mother to look after them, ‘Peter Pan’ has humour, warmth, and a massive heart. Joel Bates is a wonderful Peter, with a permanent smile, winning confidence, and innocent charm by the bucketload. He is perfectly matched by the diminutive Sarah Hillman as a modern-day Wendy, lovestruck yet with a spine of pure Titanium.
In a smart twist we had actress Eleanor Stephens playing the villainous Captain Hook, swaggering around on a set of aluminium crutches which she brandished with obvious relish. I was later informed that she had genuinely injured herself recently, and the crutches were for real! Top marks then for a real pro battling through the pain barrier to give a fantastic performance. Chris Tomlinson (who also plays Mr Darling) was a frankly magnificent Smee, providing an excellent comic foil to Hook, and ad-libbing outrageously when needed.
As Wendy’s toffee-nosed brother, John, Jay Crawford gave an energetic performance winning the hearts of the audience and proving that a good actor can make a traditionally wimpish character into something rather special. The lost boys could also have been played as a simple bunch of spoilt brats, but here we had some outstanding performances from the likes of Mat Oliphant camping it up brilliantly as ‘Slightly’, DJ Johnson displaying wonderful comic timing as Tootles, and Connor Wray, Pete Darwent, and Marian Muller combining perfectly in some beautifully choreographed song and dance sequences (by Jamie Barwood).
Special mention to big Brendan McCoy as the outrageous ‘Wee Hamish McPirate’, who nearly stole the show with a thunderous performance, and the utterly beguiling Joey Weldon as a prickly Tinkerbell whose infamous ‘death’ scene was truly hilarious and affecting. Abbie Rippon completes the pirate gang as the permanently sozzled Punch Drunk Mullins. Co-directors Dan Meigh (who also gave another side-splitting performance, this time as Starkey the pirate) and Bryony Thomas (also performing as the dim-witted yet utterly charming ‘Sea Legs Susan’) have created a laugh-a-minute, thrilling extravaganza that will delight children of all ages (and that includes an old curmudgeon like me!). The flying scenes worked beautifully, as did the sword fights, with kids in the audience wide-eyed as a flying Peter Pan (performing backflips in the style of ‘The Matrix’) battled against the dim-witted pirate gang.
Another triumph for Off The Ground, and some real stars of the future on display here. See them while you still have the chance in this magical, marvellous, and utterly delightful production.