By Mark Brown
Wendy and Peter Pan
Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh
Until January 5
While most of Scotland’s playhouses are given over to raucous pantomimes (oh yes they are!), some of the nation’s repertory theatres, including Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum, prefer a more sophisticated brand of narrative-driven Christmas theatre. This year, the Lyceum stages Wendy and Peter Pan, Ella Hickson’s re-telling of J.M. Barrie’s famous adventures in Neverland.
Directed by Eleanor Rhode, the production is probably the most frustrating Christmas show I have ever reviewed. On the one hand, with (as the adapted title suggests) its emphasis on the adventurousness of girls, it is admirably unconventional and unruly.
On the other hand, however, the play’s rumbustiousness gives way, too easily and too often, to a kind of shapeless chaos.
The production’s greatest strength lies in the portrayals and performances of the female characters. Isobel McArthur’s Wendy, frustrated by the highly gendered control-freakery of eldest brother John (and, perhaps, encouraged by younger brother Michael’s desire to be a mermaid), becomes an intrepid and clever thorn in the flesh of Captain Hook.
Tink (as Sally Reid’s hilarious, human-sized Tinker Bell insists on being called) is a wonderfully punky, gallusly Scottish creation who crushes Disney’s simpering caricature under her Doc Martens boots.
On the male side of things, Gyuri Sarossy’s Hook (working-class, from the south east of England, like an angry, occasionally reflective Ian Dury) is an intriguingly original characterisation. The same cannot be said of Ziggy Heath’s Peter Pan, who has all of his character’s selfishness, but too little of his charm.
Hickson’s script is strong on comedy (not least in Smee’s dreams of retiring to a cottage with Hook), but weak on structure. Wendy’s set piece, feminist speech, for instance, feels as if it has been shoehorned into the play.
Designer Max Johns’s sets are as exasperatingly inconsistent as the show as a whole. The scaffolding at the heart of his design is wonderfully utilitarian, and easily transformed into a fine pirate ship.
Peter Pan’s lair, however, is an ugly, disordered miscellany, as, too often, is this maddeningly variable production.
The Wizard of Oz
Pitlochry Festival Theatre
Until December 23
Pitlochry Festival Theatre is one of the reps that eschews pantomime at Christmas time. The “theatre in the hills” opts, instead, for a Yuletide musical.
Following on from its summer success with Chicago, PFT scores another notable musical hit with this classy staging of L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz. Based, of course, on the much-loved MGM film from 1939, director Gemma Fairlie’s production approaches the famous tale with a winning, youthful energy.
Rachel Flynn (gloriously confident and singing beautifully in the “Judy Garland role” of Dorothy) leads a tremendous, predominantly young cast in a delightfully faithful rendering of John Kane’s stage adaptation. The production follows the yellow brick road assiduously as the storm-tossed Dorothy meets, by turns, Scarecrow (Daniel Bailey), Tin Man (Will Knights) and Cowardly Lion (Marc Akinfolarin).
Musical director Dougie Flower and his band do tremendous, zestful justice to the famous score (music by Harold Arlen and Herbert Stothart, lyrics by E.Y. Harburg). Sarah Galbraith (an almost ironically perfect, Southern Belle-style Glinda, Good Witch of the North) and Akinfolarin give particularly memorable vocal performances, in a production that boasts almost uniformly excellent singing.
There’s no show, where this story is concerned, without baddies, and Icelandic actor Camille Marmie (a graduate of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland) provides splendidly. She flips deliciously from the bolt upright Kansas neighbour Almira Gulch to her enthusiastically evil alter-ego, the Wicked Witch of the West.
There is genuinely breathtaking spectacle in the aerial and acrobatic work of the enchanted trees and the very naughty Flying Monkeys. The wheeled pieces of set in Oz itself are disappointingly clumsy, but it would take a lot more than that to spoil what is, otherwise, an absolutely splendid musical for Christmas.
These reviews were originally published in The Herald on Sunday on December 9, 2018
© Mark Brown