Peter Pan Goes Wrong — and so does this farce (sometimes)

promo photo for Peter Pan Goes Wrong

April Banigan, Andrew MacDonald-Smith, and Alexander Ariate in a detail of a photo by Eric Kozakiewicz

Farces can be beautiful machines: marvels of comic timing and physical business so dazzlingly funny they leave you gasping for breath. But, of course, the thing about machines is that you want them to work all the time. This production of Peter Pan Goes Wrong hums along very, very well for extended stretches. It also splutters.

The premise is that we’re watching an amateur British production of J.M. Barrie’s classic play from 1904. (If you’re not familiar with the plot of Peter Pan, here’s a synopsis.)

Because of rivalries between the director and assistant director, romantic complications among the actors, and endless technical mishaps, the amateur company’s performance falls apart. (Madly trying to cope with an escalating cascade of mistakes is a driving force of farce.)

There are standout performances in this cast, starting with Andrew MacDonald-Smith’s work as Mr. Darling and Captain Hook. This guy is the king of the slow burn. He brings at least an aspirational dignity to both his characters, so it’s hilarious to watch Hook and Mr. Darling struggling to maintain their composure while everybody around them is messing up. MacDonald-Smith’s icy deadpan and timing are both superb. And there’s a lovely juxtaposition between the actor’s physical elegance and his characters’ inevitable pratfalls.

I also particularly enjoyed Oscar Derkx’s work as Max, a company member who plays both Wendy’s youngest brother Michael and the crocodile that’s after Hook. A whole lot of comedy is about commitment to irrational points of view and Derkx plays Max’s delight in fancying himself a star with such supercharged boyish charm that, if you could distill it into a cologne, you’d make a fortune.

There’s strong work from others, too, including Chris Cochrane, who plays the dog Nana and one of Hook’s pirates. As Nana, Cochrane makes the most of a desperate deadpan — when Nana repeatedly gets stuck in tight places, for instance.

But here’s the thing: Nana getting stuck is an ongoing fat joke, which is considerably more mean than clever and therefore not very funny — at least to me. This thread of cruelty is taken to a further extreme with a nervous young character named Lucy (Rochelle Laplante). Shortly after her first entrance, a piece of scenery falls on Lucy and breaks her leg. After that, as Lucy appears in a wheelchair and pressure cast, the writers attempt to mine her physical agony — her leg getting stuck in a slamming door, for instance — for laughs. WTAF?

Throughout the show, there are luxurious swaths of physical comedy, flying sequences, for example, in which Peter Pan (Jamie Cavanagh) is careening around the set so wildly that he seems to be destroying it.

But the comic structure of Peter Pan Goes Wrong is too simple: things are pretty disastrous from the get-go, so there’s not a lot of escalation or shape, there’s mostly just a repetitive series of physical mistakes — and that gets dull. There is some relief from this in scenes that involve Max: Max is in love with Sandra, the actor playing Wendy; and he’s crushed when he finds out he’s been cast only because his uncle made a financial donation to the company. In these brief moments, Peter Pan Goes Wrong acquires some heart, but not enough to fully sustain it. This script, which was written by Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer, and Henry Shields lacks the narrative sophistication and acuteness of character observation that make farces such as Noises Off and One Man, Two Guvnors classics of the genre.

Speaking of character, the writers haven’t bothered to give Sandra/Wendy a personality. Sandra is vaguely perky and she’s romantically desired by the actors playing Peter and Michael, but that’s not much for performer Alexandra Brynn to work with.

In my experience, Act 2 of this production fires more consistently than Act 1. I love the sense of helplessness I get when farce is having its way with me, but, watching Peter Pan Goes Wrong, there were also big chunks in which I felt abandoned in a comic desert, so I alternated between being delightedly giddy and asking the terrifying question, “Why am I wasting my time?”

PETER PAN GOES WRONG by Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer, and Henry Shields. Directed by Adam Meggido and Fred Gray. A Mischief Theatre production resented by The Citadel Theatre, Kenny Wax Ltd, Stage Presence Ltd. and Kevin McCollum in association with the Arts Club Theatre Company by arrangement with Mischief Worldwide Ltd. On Friday, September 16. Running on the Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage until October 16. Tickets

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About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.

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