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Review: Peter Pan Goes Wrong at Liverpool Empire ****1/2

Mischief Theatre’s deliciously catastrophic live performances have won them legions of fans and plenty of awards since they staged their first hit The Play That Goes Wrong just over a decade ago.

But of all the company’s shows, Peter Pan Goes Wrong, celebrating its 10th birthday this year, has perhaps the highest strike rate of properly funny pratfalls and irresistibly clever visual gags.

There’s technical brilliance needed – from both cast and crew – to pull of the stream of seemingly haphazard, and certainly hazardous, calamities which befall the earnest amateur players of the fictitious Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society as they stage their singular version of J M Barrie’s classic tale.

On stage haplessness is entwined with Noises Off-style backstage rivalries and unravelling relationships in one hugely enjoyable meltdown involving dodgy electrics, misfiring pyrotechnics, collapsing sets, fluffed entrances, sound problems, wardrobe malfunctions and a revolve with a mind of its own.

It’s energetically and slickly delivered by a cast who, even with well-drilled choreographed direction by Adam Meggido, and gimlet-eyed tech design, must surely go home nursing plenty of bumps and bruises. Maybe it should be sponsored by arnica?

Meanwhile they say art imitates life, but as Oscar Wilde pointed out, life imitates art sometimes too – as appeared to happen in the first half of this touring show’s opening night at the Empire.

Above: Wendy (Ciara Morris), Michael (Theo Toksvig-Stewart) and John (Clark Devlin) Darling. Top: Peter Pan Goes Wrong. Photos by Pamela Raith Photography.

I say appeared, because as the company manager came on to announce a slight hiatus while something was ‘reset’ backstage, and the curtain came down and auditorium lights up, there were questioning looks in the audience. Was this real or a devious double bluff?

While it only lasted a handful of minutes, the hiatus broke the pace of the act and I suspect Mischief’s writers (company founders Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields) are far too aware of dramatic/comedic tension to have deliberately done that to their own creation.

In fact that small glitch, and an extended interval, are testament to how technically complex the production really is.

Still, whatever wild paddling may be going on under the surface to pull it off, what happens ON the surface is impressive, crowd-pleasing (controlled) chaos in the best traditions of panto. Oh yes it is! And an appreciative Empire certainly seemed to be up for some audience participation.

Above: Jack Michael Stacey who plays Cornley's Chris Bean who plays Captain Hook. Photo by Pamela Raith Photography.

Occasionally it over eggs the pudding – a scene where Clark Devlin’s uncomprehending Dennis (playing Smee) can’t understand the strangulated accent of Peter’s (Matthew Howell) pirate Starkey is stretched just beyond its funny point, while the repetitive accidental sound issues eventually lose some of their comedy impact.

But as the story, and the play, reaches its finale, any little niggles are forgotten as the cast embark on what is an absolute masterclass in mayhem.

While the show might send itself up (and how), it never sends up its source material and Barrie’s story of the boy who wouldn’t grow up shines through the chaos, aided by Jean-Luke Worrell’s glistening narration.

Mischief has also crafted a delightful alternative universe around its Cornley creations down the years, with real attention to detail which extends even to the programme with its double entry cast biogs, faux adverts and artless ‘interviews’.


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