Theatre in Wales

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Peter Pan

The Wardens , Aberystwyth Arts Centre , January 21, 2020
Peter Pan by The Wardens January is supposed to be the most colourless of months. It is certainly brightened this Saturday morning. At 11:20 I am being eyeballed by a crocodile from a couple of metres' distance. This croc is one of four nipping up and down the Aberystwyth aisles and all are armed with water pistols. Mercifully the thin line of water arches over my head to the row behind me. To the delight and squeals of all.

The Wardens have been at it for a long time now; the proof is in the name. Theatre companies are like others, they thrive only by renewal. There is a refreshed vitality in the 2020 production on four counts. The first is in the casting. Maeve Courtier-Lilley and Jordan Ainslee-Rogers were both reviewed favourably in musicals in the simmer of 2019, in “Oliver” and “Chicago” respectively. They take to the lead roles of Wendy and Peter with charm and charisma. Paul Dark is a new arrival as Mr Smee, the pirate whose heart is not really in it to be bad. Director Richard Cheshire wisely keeps an aspect of his performance under wraps until late in the second act. Then a song medley, that includes “Hey, Big Spender” and “Delilah”, unleashes a voice of richness and power.

As for his audience interchange it is as simple as might be.

Stage: “Hello, shipmates!”

Auditorium: “Is it you?”

Stage: “No, it's Smee.”

A second innovation is formal. The Wardens have been playing with meta-theatre for a while. In the middle of mayhem Richard Cheshire would lose wig and all to the line of “If my mother could see me now.” A year ago a backcloth would collapse nightly to reveal Jim Vale and team carrying props and looking startled. This year the pirate gang has lost the freedom of resting in the interval. They roam the foyer in character amidst the drinks and the ice-creams. They are in the auditorium on our return and the young audience loves it. It is bold and it works.

A third is in the wordplay. The scripts cut back some years ago on narrating a string of jokes. The ones that feature have a linguistic vitality to them. A joke links “cherries” to “obituaries.” Captain Hook refers to his nemesis by initials only. Suggestions for the identity of P-P include Postman Pat. “I know”, says one, “Penparcau people!” The Aberystwyth pantomime has always steered clear of innuendo. A joke slips in this year that is below the belt but nice. “You've got a steering wheel in your trousers.” The riposte is pretty funny.

Lastly, theatre can be the master of new technology, or it can be its servant. “Peter Pan” lends itself to flight, the actors attached to cables. There is a reprise when later Ioan Guile as Nanny Myfanwy flies high or rather deep. The scene is set in the ocean and the character is in disguise as a flailing ungainly mermaid. But for the flight from Darling home to Neverland the production uses some magical video that vaults over a graphically rendered London roofscape. The sequence is accompanied by ringing electric guitar from Llew Evans.

Llew Evans from Aberystwyth is a long-term member of the band. Now based elsewhere it is tribute to the company that he returns for a demanding winter season. The live nature of the music under Elinor Powell is crucial. It is all too easy to run a backing track but that takes away the dynamism of relationship between musicians and actors. Louise Amery as ever is on keyboards, Tim Williams on bass guitar, Harvey Hassan on trumpet. There is a newcomer in Alex Shad with terrific drum-work.

The company has stuck to certain principles. Costume and scenery are lavish and colourful. Alex Neill's Hook is all sumptuous dark suedes and leather boots. The company is extensive, reaching into both secondary and primary schools of Ceredigion for participants. At the curtain call 39 humans- and David Goffin's crocodile- take their bow. There are another 10 children who alternate for other performances and the backstage credits number 50-plus.

Among too many to comprehensively mention are Lucille Richards as a Tiger Lily filled with grace and Elin Rees at her side as Pocahontas. Julie McNicholls Vale gets to show off her fine soprano in a first act solo. One of the pirates is named Hip Hop and Gruffydd Rhys Evans gets the chance to show why. His is a Wardens debut and he will be back.

A company this size needs a propulsive energy to make it work. Helen Jeckells is choreographer. Within the first 10 minutes Richard Cheshire has ensured we have gone through a gamut of emotions. The audience has sided sorrowfully with Nana at being sentenced to chain and kennel outside. We have turned to a neighbour to one side with the enquiry “Sut mae hi? How are yew?” Then then to the other to say: “Awrigh', thanks for askin'.”

This is a big show with a big pull. It is custom that the second act opens with Ioan Guile mentioning some of the people and groups who are present. He then turns to birthdays. The ages being celebrated run the range from 10 years old to 92.

Now that is community.

"Peter Pan" continues until 25th January, returns only.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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