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Review: Peter Pan at Chester Storyhouse ****1/2

It should perhaps come as no surprise that a venue that calls itself Storyhouse should be committed to strong storytelling.

And its 2019 Christmas offering – a new version of JM Barrie’s much-loved children’s classic - has an engaging clarity of narrative as well as being visually (and aurally!) striking.

James Phoon’s Pan is a riot of self-regarding effervescence, certainly the cockiest kid on the block, as he flits about Neverland in jeans and a trackie top being fab-u-lous. Check out the hair…but absolutely no touching!

Carlie Enoch meanwhile is a delight as his huffily devoted sidekick Tinkerbell, imbuing her fairy with a thick Welsh accent which adds a sing song quality to her sarcastic rejoinders – although she doesn’t get it all her own way in a battle of wits with Georgia Jackson’s feisty Wendy.

Writer Gary Owen has subverted one central part of the traditional story while remaining remarkably faithful to the rest, despite its modern-day setting.

In Owen’s ‘real’ world of Chester it’s the Darling children’s mother who is too busy with work to spend quality time with them – and it’s she who later turns up as the baddie in Neverland, Imogen Slaughter’s snobbish, swaggering Hook rocking a Cate-Blanchett-models-Vivienne-Westwood look.

Slaughter also forms a lovely partnership with Neal Craig as Mr Darling, creating an emotional heart to the world their children leave behind in search of (fleeting) adultless adventure.

This year Storyhouse has also set the piece within its thrust configuration, which means no one in the audience is far from the action taking place both on and over the stage.

Pan wouldn’t be Pan without flying, and the collaboration with the team at Wired Aerial Theatre means there are two different types on show – the regular lifting-into-the-Gods seen at pantos across the land, and Wired’s specialised counterbalanced bungee assisted system which gives the flier more versatility in the air.

The cast of Peter Pan. Top: James Phoon (Pan) and Georgia Jackson (Wendy). Photos by Mark McNulty

It’s impossible to hide wires and ropes in such an intimate space, so the creative team has opted to make hooking on and off seem part of the character’s natural action. When not in use the bungee ropes become part of the set.

This visibility doesn’t seem to spoil the magic for the smallest members of the audience, while the technicalities of counterbalance (the hardworking duo swing in to take a well-earned bow at the end) are interesting to older watchers.

Adults will also appreciate Owen’s script, which has a moral message running beneath the carefree fun and also offers some sly social commentary (#savetink is bang on the money) as well as a wide and wonderful vocabulary. I’ll wager it’s the only show to slip ‘antidisestablishmentarianism’ into a script this Christmas!

And Owen’s Pan is a show rather than a panto – albeit one which needs a certain level of audience participation. But that needs to be signposted clearly to theatregoers from the off to prevent the awkwardness that comes when the cast deliver scripted responses to what are non-existent reactions.

Still, that’s a slight quibble about a production that is creatively clever, colourful and chock full of heart.

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