King's Head Theatre, London N1
Opened 15 December, 2006

This Peter Pan (adapted and directed by the widow of Dan Crawford, the King's Head's onlie begetter, and starring his stepdaughter) is a miracle of compression. Not all the cast of 22 can fit on to the tiny stage at the curtain call. When fight scenes spill all over the auditorium, for once it feels not in the least gimmicky but simply necessary. However, this artistic shoehorning is most palpable in respect of the production's unique selling point. For this is the theatrical première of the full score written by Leonard Bernstein; only five of the nine songs he wrote were presented in its 1950 Broadway run. Yet in order for it to fit the King's Head, musical supervisor Mike Dixon has had to compress Bernstein's orchestrations into arrangements for a trio consisting of piano, cello and flute/piccolo/clarinet. It's a serviceable bit of work, and you can hear many of the composer's original harmonic complexities in the mind's ear. But hearing them all with the actual ear would be preferable; you feel the lack, especially on the two or three numbers which are more like brief musical sketches than complete songs.

Stephanie Sinclaire compresses (that word again) J.M. Barrie's play to make room for the songs in a two-hour show. The main Neverland section is exuberant, with Katherine Kastin giving the strongest performance I have seen from her as an ebullient Peter. But there is no countervailing sense of humanity among the "earthly" characters: the Darling household is a place of camp, and Lisa Holliman's Wendy never balances her wide-eyed wonder with the down-to-earth practicality which makes her so in demand as a surrogate mother to the Lost Boys and even Captain Hook's pirates. Nevertheless, it turns the most cramped and uncomfortable theatre in London into a place of fun and fantasy for a brief while, and when Peter made his famous appeal to the audience to revive the dying Tinkerbell (Dixon's little daughter Meg, with the cutest snub nose this side of the animated titles to Bewitched) by clapping our hands, I looked around to see that with only one exception even we hard-bitten critics were all applauding like billy-o.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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