Review: Peter Pan In Kensington Gardens, New Wimbledon Theatre Studio

Review: Peter Pan In Kensington Gardens, New Wimbledon Theatre Studio

Jenny Booth on this classic tale revisited 


Is this really a show to entertain children or is it a sensitively-written nostalgia fest to appeal to adult fans of JM Barrie? The answer, as in the name of the emerging theatre company that devised the play Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, is Betwixt-and-Between.

This two-handed show is wholly neither one thing nor the other. It’s short length (one hour), episodic story-telling, and its use of role-play and simple props to set off adventurous flights of the imagination, are the hallmarks of a charming if old-fashioned children’s production. The complex vocabulary, and the more disturbing themes of danger, estrangement from parents, and desire to escape the adult world, are more suited to an older audience. By the time the show ends the balance has probably tipped towards its being a light entertainment for adults.

JM Barrie first created the character of Peter Pan in 1902, describing his birth and early life in a few chapters of his novel The Little White Bird, and returning to the same theme four years later in a book Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens with illustrations by Arthur Rackham. In 1904, however, the adventures of an older Peter Pan became a huge success as a play on the West End stage. Over the years, as the many film and cartoon adaptations of the play captured the popular imagination and created a hero stereotype of Peter Pan in his battles with Captain Hook, the rather quaint, Edwardian prequel story fell out of fashion. So it was an enterprising act by Charlotte Allen, the writer, director and producer who also stars at Mary/Peter, to resurrect it and convert it into a new play.

Allen chooses to tell the story of baby Peter as a play within a play. The first characters the audience meets are rebellious Mary, who has run away to Kensington Gardens with a basket of toys, and her understanding and imaginative father George (Daniel Arbon) who has followed her. The audience realises that George is telling Mary the story of Peter Pan – a baby who flew out of the nursery window and stayed away so long he was forgotten by his mother – as a cautionary tale to persuade her to come home. Together they act out Peter’s adventures, with Mary as Peter learning to fly for the first time, flapping over the Serpentine to meet the wise crow Solomon Caw. With Arbon playing all the other parts, Mary/Peter has various adventures, attending a fairies’ ball and being granted two wishes, but gradually realises that endless adventuring carries risks.

Neither Allen nor Arbon has a trained singing voice, but they tunefully interpret Patrick Niel Doyle’s infectious original music, written for the show. Aided by Elliott Wallis’s evocative sound design which sets the scene, their well-rehearsed storytelling succeeds in taking flight and capturing the audience’s imagination for short periods. But the show’s essential contradiction – adult play or children’s entertainment? – prevents it from quite working as a whole.

Peter Pan In Kensington Gardens ran at the New Wimbledon Theatre Studio on 15-17 October.

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