Peter Pandered

An appreciation of Illyria Theatre at Lytham Hall

Peter Pan 12 August 2022

My faith in live theatre was fully restored last Friday. Here was a show that did not tick boxes, but made them from other boxes, and then popped out of them. It was not simply replicating something previous, but creating something unique. More fundamentally, it provided all the essential ingredients in wholesome ways. It also embodied the centuries-old conventions of the entertainment trade in its most durable garb. Traditional yes, old-fashioned no, except in the time-honoured manner of a craft being displayed by exponents who have grafted through their apprenticeships by repeatedly constructing something of value.

Furthermore, your scribe was finally supplied with some new molecules (see earlier post) when things truly unexpected were presented with skill and worth.

Illyria specialise in outdoor touring shows to be seen by daylight and in doing so they perpetuate an English theatre tradition that pre-dates Shakespeare; in fact it is the method by which Stratford’s best-known Willy learned to act, write and produce stage works.  It is also bloody hard work.

What the modern audience may not realise is that the five people we applauded last Friday not only played all the parts (eleven credited plus numerous others) and conducted all the offstage tasks, they had unpacked, assembled and dressed the set, laid out the costumes, prepared the properties and set up the physical and technical machinery. Before the show they connected with the crowd and hawked the programmes. (They also defied physical credibility and failed conductivity to fix a two-hundred-yard technical hitch in two minutes flat.) Afterwards they had to pack the whole caboodle into a van, bed down somewhere and trundle off at the crack of dawn to the next gig. That’s not acting, neither is it playing, though that’s what it is called.

They did an excellent job.

I must, once again, come clean and admit to knowing a member of the company, and yes, that knowledge was the prime motivation in seeing the show. I’ve long wanted to catch Nick Taylor in one of these productions, the like of which he’s been doing for a good number of years, but circumstances, or my wimpish attitude to weather, have thus far precluded it.

Nick may be the most successful of those I have formerly coached. Others have appeared on more prominent stages and screens but few have had the longevity and continuity of his work. His vintage is sublimely evident, but this was a truly ensemble show, and what was most pleasing was the consistency of the very high standards of solid performance skills.

This company understand theatre. It’s not complicated. One group of people have a story to tell and another wants to see and hear it. Those two requirements of the audience are crucial, yet so often their delivery falls short. Not in this case, and outdoor theatre is especially demanding. We were sitting at the rear edge of a fan-shaped space holding five hundred picnicking punters and we heard every word. Every syllable.

All five actors knew how to project their voices, hone their diction, and position themselves effectively for those things to be transmitted. I’d almost given up on expecting to receive every vocal nuance in an un-amplified live performance, putting it down to old eardrums as much as ill-tutored performers, but this show restored my reception. I’ve no doubt that hearing aids will soon be heading in my direction, but on Friday night I had no need of them. At one point I began to get annoyed by a muttering over my shoulder until I realised it was actually the actors’ voices echoing off the façade of Lytham Hall fifty yards behind me. That’s how efficient the performers were.

A sound system was used for music, but the actors were not using microphones. (An easy test for this is to see if the voices follow the actor. When actors are miked the sound always comes from the same direction: where the electrical speakers are located.)

They were equally proficient at using their physical skills. This often comes with companies who frequently play to children, but all generations appreciate it, and it is particularly valuable when audiences do not have the benefit of the intimacy of indoor venues. The physical comedy was to be expected, but there was more than that.  A surprising amount of even the most low-key action was synchronised to the soundtrack in a sublime yet unpretentious way. Beyond that was the delightfully illustrative use of posture, a veritable cornucopia of narrative gesture and exquisite – sometimes excruciating – beaming of facial expression. The whole of every performer reprinted the text on temporary space, and hence we saw the story appear and vanish before our feasted eyes.

The flag-waving promotion of this production centred around it being the first outdoor presentation of J.M. Barrie’s infamous play to use flying, and that did not disappoint either. The technique was simple but highly effective. It fits with the director Sir Peter Brook’s notion that “there must be nothing up our sleeves”. The method of flying was evident even before the show began but it was the physicality of the airborne that made the impact. It was done with grace and poise and a clever reference to the iconic print images of Peter (played with electric panache by Seonaid Stevenson) and Wendy (a consummately crafted personification by Rachel O’Hare), but it was the emergence of a mermaid that, for me, and I think many others, made the air molecules change.

The audience saw a crab’s-eye view of a legless, fish-tailed Elizabeth Robin beautifully rippling submarine propulsion in her element and free of all land. A hush settled over the crowd like that found in the gap between successive waves on shingle. It was a unique tiny moment of true total theatre.

The trinkets of invention were scattered across this beach of a show like the booty of a fleeing buccaneer. Tinker Bell – sometimes just a delightfully hyperactive duster on a fishing pole, and at others a benevolently menacing doll in the hands of a puppeteer that she seemed to command rather than be controlled by – was emblematic of the way Oliver Gray, the show’s director, adhered to and also re-imagined this classic tale. Tinker Bell lived and then somehow lingered when not there, ready to reappear at the inhale of a summons.

There were surprise entrances and exits, the onstage reassembly of scenic furniture to make new forms, the use of soft-toys as extras, and a dog costume so unrealistic that it brought genuine barks from a four-legged occupant in the auditorium. I lost count of the quick-changes but kept a close log of the lost children who were amusingly, yet endearingly, represented.

Multi-role playing was done by all, but the lion’s share fell to the aforementioned Elizabeth Robin and to Nicholas Lee both of whom were masterly. Their skills as black-clad puppeteers were slick and precise and their characterisations were rich in range and weave, blending accents with physical signatures to make emotional grenades. Lee linked himself to each part with candied humour of multiple flavours, and made an unbreakable tether to the consciousness of children even if they had long been adult. Robin was persistently effervescent, yet scrupulous in her delivery. She gave the age-old images renewed vigour, made them dance, then cast them overboard.

Seonaid Stevenson somehow found the hidden sadness behind the persistent joy of both Peter and Pan. The ancient Greek god of nature is a curious sprite to be linked at least in name to a boy who covets perpetual youth, but who knows what J.M. Barrie was looking to signify?  Peter, like Pan, revels in the energy of childhood, but Stevenson’s unbridled joy held something sinister not quite fully hidden beneath her pan-piped tones and faun-like aerial frolicking.

Maybe she, or the director, had seen that version of the script in which to Peter’s line “I always want to be a little boy and have fun” is added the stage direction: So perhaps he thinks, but it is only his greatest pretend.

I had not discovered that stage direction until after this performance, but thanks to the show I had seen, it did not surprise me. Somehow Stevenson had embodied it.

And so we come to Nick Taylor. I could be biased but there is no need to be. If there is one role that Nick was born to play it is that of a pirate. Despite being one of the nicest guys I know there has always been a joyous dark side to him. Many years ago he, and his accomplices laid my six-year-old son on our dining room table and covered him from head to foot in plaster to create an effigy for a tomb, from which Nick would later emerge. Our son made a complete recovery, but the table has never been the same.

Nick has a particular affinity for piracy and his Captain Hook was a worthy coronet for this theatrical treasure chest. The audience loved to hate him, and vice versa. He was delicate as a sadist in a scalpel shop, bombastic as butcher after brandy and arrogant as politician who has just won the election he rigged.  But most pleasing from my perspective was his Mr Darling, because here was unadorned humanity, played large but with delectable integrity. We saw the shape of his soul and heard his heartfelt truths.

Before we get carried away on a spring tide of adulation it is important to point out this vessel had some leaks. As for the younger folk whose early exposure to theatre is its long-term life blood, well, not all remained fully engaged throughout, but there is a critical distance for all age groups when playing to an audience and out of doors that barrier is more elastic. Those in the picnic blanket mosh-pit at the front seemed securely on board and supplied the most welcome of shared experience heckles. Those further away sometimes found distraction in their immediate surroundings – but that’s an intrinsic danger of daylit picnic productions.  

Despite the impeccable techniques of the performers, just here and there was a tad too much treading of dialogue water, though, in the main, we cut along like a clipper. The menace of the crocodile was an aspect that may have been a little too tightly stowed in terms of threat. The fearsome amphibian’s ticking belly is, for some reason, the haunting image that persists from my youth, and more could have been made of that, but when the beast itself appeared, the shock was tangible. The moment when it entirely consumed the man who had once encased my boy was most satisfying.

Oliver Gray’s decisions were drawn from his astute observations of J.M Barrie’s text. With under two hours to play with things must be eschewed as well as included, and while some sections of the original were slipped under the carpet of expediency, there were also some choices made that resulted in really powerful theatrical spy-glasses. Under his direction Seonaid Stevenson showed that anti-convention of being a character who does not change, and rejoicing in it which, on reflection, gave us a manifestation that made Peter’s plight of living forever more frightening than facing a pirate or a crocodile.

Most moving for me was this show’s conclusion, when the superb Rachel O’Hare unexpectedly reappeared as a further embodiment of Barrie’s obsession in this work: a mother. I almost grabbed my programme because I thought we were suddenly presented with a sixth performer, regardless of the fact she had ostensibly changed very little. Now the comedy sailed the horizon and true pathos came ashore. O’Hare showed that you can play big but focus small, and that, in turn, makes the tiny hidden the most important. As with each of her colleagues, I found her performance to be flawless. Despite the title, this is Wendy’s tale, and O’Hare conveyed it with the necessary arrogance of a consummate player whilst always being properly wrapped in the humility of a doubtful human at the heart of the unpredictable lifetime that we all must face.

We can stay young but must grow old. How wonderful would it really be to live for ever? The company handled this mixed-message ending every bit as well as the slapstick melodrama we most expected. It was, perhaps, the reason why the final applause was warm and sincere, rather than ecstatic and blousy.

Family shows are not suitable for everyone, and while this production sometimes placed emphasis that did not connect with all those there, it also provided moments of great joy, deep insight, and profound meaning and did so despite the demands of an outdoor arena, the oppression of a heatwave, and the fickle attention spans of very small future theatre makers and goers.

The story panders to the preferences of the eponymous Peter. This dramatisation, without any shadow of a doubt, pandered to the preferences of at least one Peter who witnessed it.

(Straw hats off too, to the marshals and volunteers at Lytham Hall for exquisite house-keeping.)


Illyria Theatre:

Related publications:

More facts about travelling players can be found fictionally in Will at the Tower.

More thoughts on how to make theatre make sense can be found in: Drama: what it is and how to do it.

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