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A festive trip to Neverland

Birmingham’s Old Rep Theatre is hosting a production of the ever-popular Peter Pan this festive season - and audiences can expect a fresh new take on the firm family favourite.

Featuring a cast of professional actors alongside 14 students of the Birmingham Ormiston Academy (BOA) Group, the musical is aimed at people of all ages and hopes to cast a new light on the much-loved story.
JM Barrie’s classic tale sees Wendy and her brothers, John and Michael, accompany Peter Pan - ‘the boy who never grows up’ - to the magical world of Neverland. Once there, they meet fairies and the Lost Boys, battle with pirates, and encounter the evil Captain Hook and a tick-tocking crocodile.

It’s a familiar tale full of childhood adventure, and Director Alec Fellows-Bennett is aiming to use the new production to explore the story’s meaning.
“We’re very much looking at it as a rite-of-passage story, which seems pretty relevant at the minute. What was once conceived as a rite of passage was a very clear thing in the past, but where someone stops being young and starts taking responsibility seems very fluid these days.”

So while the team are presenting the Peter Pan we all know and love, they have also given it a new angle.
“It’s very much Wendy’s rite of passage,” says Alec. “I want people to see the story from her point of view because Wendy is the one who goes on a journey. Peter stays as Peter, nothing changes, but what happens is that Wendy realises that nothing’s going to change, and that realisation changes something in her. 
“Hook, again, is an archetype; he’s the other side of the coin from Peter Pan. They live this game day after day after day, but the process of playing the game changes something within Wendy. So it’s her saying: ‘It’s been useful and I’ve learnt stuff, but I’m ready to take the next step in life now. I’m going to take these lessons on and go forward.’”

For Alec and the team, the crux of the story is about what Wendy, and indeed all young people, choose to leave behind and what they choose to take into adulthood.
“Our guiding principle is that Wendy learns that being child-like is a wonderful thing - being imaginative, being creative, being accepting, being open to new experiences, being open to changing your opinion on things as you learn more. But being childish, which is what Hook and Pan are, is the bit that we have to walk away from. 
“So I would say the story is told in the traditional way, and everyone will recognise all the usual bits, but I think the angle from which we are telling it is slightly different. We’re telling possibly and hopefully a more relatable tale.”

Taking the role of Peter Pan is Solihull-based actor Thea Jo Wolfe, who says her Peter has a part to play in helping Wendy move forwards into adulthood.
“We’ve come to the conclusion that Peter is almost a figment of Wendy’s imagination,” she explains. “The idea is that a Neverland exists for every child but is different for every child, and the same is true of Peter. You will be almost rescued by the Peter that is right for you. So a lot of Peter’s interaction with Wendy, whether it’s positive or slightly manipulative, comes from the fact that he’s Wendy’s specific Peter, to go on the journey that she needs to go on.”

Peter Pan is the latest in a string of successful BOA productions staged at the Old Rep. Previous festive seasons have seen the team presenting new musical versions of Alice In Wonderland, The Wind In The Willows and The Snow Queen.
The production features a professional creative team and professionals heading up all of the backstage departments. The students gain experience by taking on roles on and off-stage, including acting, lighting, sets and costume design.

Thea is enjoying the experience of working alongside the young people.
“I wish somewhere like this had been around when I was a student,” she says. “It’s nice to have a production where you’ve got people coming into the industry and you’ve got that springboard for them to learn from the professionals - assuming that I get things right!
“We’re there to do our job and produce an entertaining show, but I’d like to think we can also be role models for the students. It also makes you think of the way you treat the process. You’ve got people watching, and you’d like to think you’ve had a positive impact on them.”

The production is a revival of a version of Peter Pan first staged in 1985, with actor Ron Moody in the role of Hook. Although some tweaks have been made to the original, to bring the show into the 21st century, at its heart it retains everything that audiences love about the story - as Alec explains...
“Like any good show, whatever the message is shouldn’t be rammed down your throat while you’re watching it. You should just sit, watch and enjoy it. It’s during the drive home or the train ride home that you think about what they were trying to say.
“And while having a message might matter to directors, it doesn’t have to matter to an audience. This show is for families, and if they come and have a good time and enjoy the show, that’s great. 
“It’s a full-blown musical with some great join-in songs and lots of great characters. We want to stage a show which is all-singing and all-dancing - and there’s nothing more all-singing, all-dancing than giant crocodiles and people flying! Children and adults are going to really enjoy it.”

by Diane Parkes