“You need to let your pirate out” says Captain Hook, advising James Barrie to reduce the glucose content in his story and allow its darker elements to triumph. The writers could have taken the same advice in their construction of Finding Neverland “The New Musical Comedy”. Whilst the second act is touching and moving once Barrie gets Peter Pan off the ground, so to speak, the first is sluggish and unfocused and does no service to historical accuracy.
Barrie was undeniably homosexual, and maintained a dubious interest in small boys which might have got him into trouble had it not been for the disbelieving morality of the day. His fascination with the Llewellyn-Davies brothers parallels Lewis Carroll’s infatuation with Alice Liddell and her sisters and will shortly be explored by Judi Dench and Ben Whishaw when, in John Logan’s new play Peter and Alice those two characters meet in later life.
Finding Neverland presents Barrie as a shy romantic whose affections are captured by widowed mother, Sylvia, with whom he eventually falls in love, whilst developing a healthy outdoor friendship with her four sons on whom he tests his tales of piracy and derring-do. This is wayward, because the boys’ father Arthur didn’t die until three years after Peter Pan opened and when mother later succumbed to cancer, “Uncle Jim” Barrie interfered with a version of her Will to have himself nominated as the person with whom the boys should live.
Peter committed suicide, George died in battle on the Somme, Michael drowned at 20 in suspicious circumstances at Oxford, with his alleged male lover. See what I mean, there’s an infinitely better and darker story here although possibly not for a musical.
The sins of historical omission and commission are directly attributable to the movie, of course, but it feels more immediately ‘wrong’ in the theatre and by sticking to the sanitized made-for-middle-America Miramax treatment, the writers have constructed a show with more spoonfuls of sugar than Mary Poppins, which it too closely resembles. Producer Harvey Weinstein’s argument would be that it makes it palatable to family audiences: that may be its fatal flaw in a post-Matilda world where children respond to more ambitious plotlines.
In Rob Ashford’s uneven production, it’s hard to define this as musical comedy, there are so many conflicting elements: Julian Ovenden and Rosalie Craig look handsome and sing beautifully at the centre of a slow burning married-boy-meets-widowed-girl romance, as does Clare Foster as the third wheel Mary Barrie. They don’t seem to be in the same play as Oliver Boot’s camp Captain Hook who appears as Barrie’s alter ego and conscience, a structure which pales by comparison with The Carroll Myth, Nathan Shreeves' fine play premiered at the Edinburgh Festival last year and in which the characters from Alice invade the author’s mind.
Hook is only a loveable rogue in recent animated movies and for pantomime purposes, 1904 audiences would have found him genuinely frightening. Also batting for the panto team are the League Of Gentlemen cartooned as Barrie’s best mates, and Stuart Neal overacting as Barrie’s harassed stage manager. The schoolboys sing brightly and act by numbers, although none of them is a potential Billy Elliot. Which leaves Liz Robertson, as Sylvia’s disapproving mother, still with Madame Giry’s stick up her backside and delivering a one-woman Downton Abbey.
Despite the randomness of the characterisations, money has been flung at the production: Scott Pask’s sets are vast and impressively detailed, and Paul Willis’s costumes are elegant (although largely linen which wasn’t a fashion textile in 1904, being used mainly for handkerchiefs, shrouds and bedsheets), there’s a car which could do justice to Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and a fully-rigged pirate ship afloat on a sea of dry ice to climax Act One.
John Driscoll and Gemma Carrington’s projection designs are vividly coloured and convey a real sense of movement, but they’re not nearly as exciting as William Dudley’s 3D projections for Peter Pan in London. I looked for a credit in the programme for the flying technology, but there isn’t one. It’s so bad it could be two men on a rope at the side of the stage.
Michael Korie’s lyrics and Scott Frankel’s music don’t soar, except perhaps in a derivative anthem which accompanies the pirate voyage – in fact looking at the list of 27 numbers in the programme a day after seeing the show, it’s impossible to recall any of them with clarity.
This is a fully-finished production, not an out-of-town tryout, and having seen it ahead of the London critics it’s tempting to do as Walter Winchell’s secretary Rose – who saw Oklahoma! in preview in Connecticut – and cable home “no legs, no jokes, no chance”. It has potential, but if it’s to be the show Weinstein says he intends to bring in to London to challenge Book of Mormon (although I’d have guessed they’d attract different audiences) it needs to lose fifteen minutes from the first act, and gain a couple of the sort of knockout production numbers for which Rob Ashford is famous.