Northern Ballet Theatre
Grand Theatre, Leeds
In case you hadn't noticed, 2004 marks the centenary of J M Barrie's ever-popular Peter Pan. Since 1904 the play has been staged as a pantomine and a musical, but to the best of my knowledge this is the first dance version.
On the face of it the work seems to be a gift to the choreographer, and NBT's Artistic Director David Nixon has devised some inventive and enjoyable dances for the children, pirates and mermaids who make up the cast. Stephen Warbeck's score, although not particularly memorable, successfully conjures up the atmosphere of genteel Edwardian London and the exotic Neverland. On the night I saw the ballet audience response was overwhelmingly positive, but I was left feeling that Barrie's masterpiece suffers badly when deprived of words (for obvious reason there are a few spoken lines - clap your hands if you can guess in which scene they occur )
NBT have managed to get many things right in their Peter Pan. The scenario by Nixon and Pat Doyle hearkens back to the original play rather than Disney's saccharine cartoon, the flying is truly breathtaking and the characterization of Peter (the superb Christian Broomhall), Wendy (Pippa Moore) and the Lost Boys is a delight. I doubt if the Kennel Club would recognise Nana (Michela Paolacci) as a Newfoundland, but the two children sitting next to me went into ecstasies every time she appeared. Tinker Bell is a fluttery rod puppet operated by a black-clad dancer, an interesting experiment (albeit one lost on those members of the audience not equipped with opera glasses). The traditional doubling of Mr Darling/Captain Hook (David Kierce) is adhered to, and Mrs Darling (Natalie Leftwich) reappears in the form of the motherly Neverbird. So far, so good. But this a sadly unmagical Neverland, and the blame can be laid fairly and squarely on Peter Mumford's lacklustre design.
I realize that ballet sets have to be fairly spartan for the simple reason that dancers need plenty of open space, but surely Peter Pan calls for something a bit more exciting than three stylised waves to represent the sea ("Sharks!" cried a little voice in the Balcony). A weird, Henry Moore-style object with a hole in it serves as Marooner's rock and the roof of Peter's house. The prow of the Jolly Roger is barely recognisable as a ship, and even the Darling nursery is in urgent need of the Changing Rooms treatment. The scene changes are also clumsily managed - when we've been treated to a stagehand's view of the Darling house it's hard to willingly suspend our disbelief.
Another problem is that there is very little sense of drama in the production. Dixon seems to assume that Barrie's play is so well-known he can dispense with any real attempt at telling the story through dance, as a result of which we are presented with a series of strangely unconnected stage pictures. And in the production's only nod to the Disney film, "Tinker Bell sprinkles the ship with fairy dust as the sails unfurl and the ship begins to take flight for home." Thank goodness the programme pointed this out - I doubt if anyone in the audience could have worked it out from what actually happens on stage!
Despite its shortcomings, Peter Pan is well worth seeing and will no doubt remain in NBT's repertory for years. A little tightening up of the narrative and some rethinking of the design elements would work wonders.
Reviewer: J. D. Atkinson