t isn’t often you see a youth theatre show presented with full professional production values and I’ve been lucky enough to see two this Christmas (the other was The Wind in the Willows at Rose Theatre, Kingston). This Peter Pan (my third PP this year) is played entirely by CFYT members and there are no professionals in the cast. And, in the hands of director, Dale Rooks who heads Chichester Festival Theatre’s impressive Learning and Participation Department, it’s a magnificent show. The scale is epic because, of course, the playing space is large and enables Rooks to have big groups of dancing mermaids, stamping pirates, (very) lost boys, Red Indians and so on. Every single individual is skilfully grafted into to a slickly accomplished ensemble.
At the heart of the show is outstanding work by Sephora Parish as Wendy on press night – she alternates at other performances with Amy Norman. Sephora is a very naturalistic actor who finds exactly the right blend of feisty feminism, maternal instinct, burgeoning adult feelings towards Peter and childish need for her own mother in her very complex role. Darcy Collins (alternating with Megan O’Hanlon) creates a fine, angry, ever-present Tinker Bell who communicates very effectively in squeaks and gestures. Her epaulettes light up and her trainers flash. Sami Green’s Peter (his alter ego is Freddie Hill) is suitably rueful, sparky, sad, loyal and brave but ultimately a loner.
This production, rather refreshingly, goes back to JM Barrie’s script and uses many unfamiliar words and lines. It makes the dialogue sound slightly stilted in places but the benefits outweigh that because the characters – especially amongst the lost boys are unusually well developed.
Another very successful decision is to create the Neverland set (designed by Simon Higlet) based on a scaled up iron-railed bed. It reminds us that we are never actually very far from the nursery the piece begins and ends in because, in a sense, the whole construct is a children’s dream fantasy.
A six-piece live band, led by Musical Director, Colin Billing provides atmospheric background music, composed by Eamonn O’Dwyer. This isn’t musical theatre but music is an important strand in managing the mood. It also allows song where it’s appropriate, such as the pirates’ robust, stamping shanty.
Costumes (by Ryan Dawson Laight) are inspired too. We are, more or less in modern, or at least timeless, dress. The motley lost boys in yellows and browns have a look of Lord of the Flies about them with their little rucksacks and individual personalised items such the odd tie round a head. The pirates look genuinely menacing and brigand-like and Hook (Hal Darling on press night, alternating with Alexander Hughes) is, praise be, not styled as Charles II, Instead he has Fagin-esque straggly hair and a floor-length coat. And the mermaids dancing with jelly fish umbrellas are an immaculately choreographed delight.
Flying is bound to be a problem in a youth theatre production but the puppetry solution works beautifully. It’s all part of the captivating make-believe game and rarely has the suspension of disbelief been so easy.
It is quite unusual for a venue to turn its main house over to its youth theatre rather than producing an income generating populist professional show such as a pantomime. Bravo Chichester Festival Theatre. It’s an enlightened policy, more than justified by the quality and verve of the work.
The Fairies. Photo: Manuel Harlan