PETER PAN GOES WRONG

★★★★

_REVIEW.   it’s about _THEATRE.   words _KYLE PEDLEY.   at _THE ALEXANDRA.   tickets _OFFICIAL SITE.   booking until _23rd MAR.

March 18, 2024

images © Pamela Raith.

It was in the midsts of doing a spot of research for this piece that this particular theatregoer and reviewer stumbled upon the concept of the ‘GWEU’.

That’s the ‘Gone Wrong Extended Universe’, for the uninitiated. A sort of overarching meta-narrative for the various offerings by Mischief Theatre’s fictitious, gloriously inept ‘Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society’.

Brushing aside the creeping tendrils and faint, cynical echoes of all things Marvel or House of Mouse, it actually makes a lot of sense for Henry LewisOlivier-winning troupe to have capitulated on the roaring success of their debut comedy mega hit, The Play That Goes Wrong.

For whilst they may have spread their clumsy, accident-prone wings out into all manner of directions (with Mind Mangler, itself a spin-off of the wobblier Magic Goes Wrong, just kickstarting its first UK tour), it remains the myriad creative catastrophes of the fictional am dram team that most seems to bottle the Frayn-inspired Mischief magic.

The BBC certainly seemed to think so, too, commissioning The Goes Wrong Show that ran from 2019 through to 2021 and featured the same cast of bumbling, loveable Cornley players.

But before setting their sights on the small screen, Lewis and company followed up Play with the conceptual Peter Pan Goes Wrong. Same premise, same fictional am-dram group, different subject matter – replacing a hokey, Christie-esque whodunnit with flights (and falls!) of fancy inspired by J.M Barrie’s beloved children’s book.

Which is all a very storied and slightly elaborate means of asking a rather simple question in that rare field of the theatre sequel; namely, can magic strike twice? Does Pan prove itself a worthy successor to Play? And do we even need a ‘Gone Wrong Extended Universe’, Auntie Beeb or no?

“…an easy, dare one say almost formulaic recommendation for those who are fans of the Mischief experience…

For the most part, Peter Pan Goes Wrong makes for an easy, dare one say almost formulaic recommendation for those who are fans of the Mischief experience, and certainly enthusiasts of The Play That Goes Wrong.

It is, for all intents and purposes, a reskin of Play with an admittedly grander budget and a soupçon more of an eye for spectacle and higher stakes silliness. An extended spot of low-budget underwater illusion work is particularly inspired and funny and, naturally, goes wonderfully haywire. Interpersonal conflicts and personality clashes between the cadre of amateur actors once again bubble away beneath the surface, as chunks of the set regularly misfire and KO unexacting company members. Slapstick giddiness abounds, and flubbed lines and technical disasters await at every turn. There’s even a spot of audience interaction thrown in for good measure this time round (“Oh no, there isn’t!”…).

It’s joyful, silly, frequently laugh-out-loud stuff. The only slight rub here being that its familiarity of approach robs it of some of Play’s own pixie dust sheen of freshness and sparkle, with it occasionally feeling that Pan’s desire to go bigger occasionally dilutes focus or sacrifices some of the razor-sharp precision of Play. There’s only so many times you can see an actor flail about on a fly system and slamming into flats or tearing down parts of the set before it becomes a little samey. Some of the more elaborate set pieces and catastrophes look great, but lack a little of the pin-sharp simplicity and punchiness of its predecessor. A second Act song and dance number feels like it has more comic potential and opportunity to tap away at than is managed.

In all, Play certainly feels the tauter, more purposeful slice of slapstick by comparison to the broader, grander strokes at play here in Pan.

Still, the well-defined company of Cornley regulars return and prove fantastic company and winning patsies all over again, with this latest UK touring production assembling a great cast who inject them with plenty of animated vim and zest.

“…the well-defined company of Cornley regulars return and prove fantastic company and winning patsies all over again…”

Matthew Howell and Jack Michael Stacey are a hoot as long-time friends, quasi rivals and directors (is that co-director or assistant director?), Robert and Chris. Both are terrific throughout, with Howell mining every ounce of funny from a garbled, barely comprehensible pirate lilt, and Stacey dialling up the exasperation and incredulity as his show collapses about him. An extended spot of banter between Stacey’s Captain Hook and the audience proved a particular highlight.

Loveable fan favourite Max returns and is as adorably boyish and naive as ever, played by a game and impressive Theo Toksvig-Stewart. Habitual scene-stealer Jean-Luke Worrell, recently memorable as a hyper elastic butler in Cluedo, makes good once again as his Francis wheels between exuberant, glitter-hurling narrator and guffawing, oafish Pirate. But it’s really his late-game spot of audience distraction that truly seals the deal.

Elsewhere, Jake Burgum is great fun throughout as sardonic, put upon and ever-so-slightly incompetent stage hand, Trevor, who understandably seems a bit over it all. Understudies Clare Noy and Consuela Rolle stepped up for the performance reviewed and gave confident, funny turns as Sandra and Annie, respectively, be they getting electrocuted by faulty fairy dresses, smacked in the face with errant dance plates, caught out in the middle of a sonic-fast outfit change or any other such chaos and calamity.

“If Peter Pan Goes Wrong doesn’t quite fizz with the same inspired newness or precision timing of its forebear, it will still be, for most audiences, a more than worthy follow-up.”

If Peter Pan Goes Wrong doesn’t quite fizz with the same inspired newness or precision timing of its forebear, it will still be, for most audiences, a more than worthy follow-up. The desire to go bigger is understandable, and when it does manage to successfully marry its ambitions with their execution, it’s an absolute romp. Perhaps unsurprisingly, though, it’s generally in the smaller, simpler, more relatable spots of tomfoolery that Pan Goes Wrong most authentically tickles the funny bone. That be where the treasure truly lies, me hearties.

As to the question of that Extended Universe? Well, it may not be as perfect as our first evening of Mischief madness, but Peter Pan Goes Wrong is still confidently a darn sight funnier and more inspired than the vast majority of its comedy contemporaries.

And, let’s face it, any night spent in the company of the bonkers, calamity-prone players of Cornley Polytechnic is one that rarely actually Goes Wrong at all.

Bring on Cornley Players: Infinity War.

Another zany, funny and inspiredly bonkers outing for Mischief’s Cornley players. If it lacks a little freshness and barnstorming originality a second time round, there still be plenty of slapstick fairy dust and comedic treasure to unearth here, me hearties.

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