Martin Newell’s Joy Of Eseex: Forget Pinter, Chekhov and Beckett and give me Peter Pan

James Peake and Pete Ashmore in Colchester Mercury's production of Peter Pan. Photo: Robert Day

James Peake and Pete Ashmore in Colchester Mercury's production of Peter Pan. Photo: Robert Day - Credit: Archant

Because I am a low-brow chap in many ways, I rarely go to the theatre nowadays unless I’m actually performing at one, writes Martin Newell.

I have an entrenched aversion to Samuel Beckett, August Strindberg, Anton Chekhov and Harold Pinter, all of whose work I find unenjoyable. To be fair to these playwrights, I have in the past attempted to explore their wares, if only to be able to explain to those with loftier brows than mine, exactly what I dislike about them.

There are times, when it simply won’t suffice to admit, “Well, I am after all only a shallow proletarian clod who prefers Clint Eastwood films, Viz Comic and 1960s pop music to drama.”

Having suffered Pinter’s The Homecoming for instance, I thought it best to learn something of it, before condemning it out of hand.

It was written in 1964, an optimistic period for Britain, yet the playwright somehow managed to concoct a bleak monochromatic swampdog of a play, the plot of which even his friends couldn’t convincingly explain.

To confuse things even further, Pinter set it in gritty North London, yet wrote it in genteel Worthing.

Why would a person of my type ever like such a thing? Best make no bones about it. Life is short and art is frequently too long.

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It saves an awful lot of time to come clean about reclaiming one’s inner peasant, rather than getting mired in some pointless denial of it.

Recently, however, while working at Colchester’s Mercury Theatre, I noticed that a summer production of Peter Pan was being staged.

Now that sounded more my sort of mark, I thought. Was it any good? I asked Janina Doyle, the theatre’s duty manager. She assured me it was very good indeed and further, that during thin times for so many entertainment venues, the Mercury seemed to be bucking the trend. I bought two tickets.

A few days days later, Her Outdoors and I went to watch the play.

It was charming, funny, evocative and often, terribly moving. The ten actors involved were faultless. That their work, along with that of the backstage crew’s seemed so effortless, made me suspect that it must have been rigorously rehearsed.

The audience, predominantly children, remained spellbound. I had never before seen such a large number of them sitting so quietly, absorbed in a piece. Peter Pan is more commonly associated with Christmas pantomime, so in August, it really shouldn’t have worked. That it did is much to do with the multiple layers of meaning in the story.

Interestingly, J.M. Barrie has an Essex connection. He was a frequent visitor to Thorpe Hall, at Thorpe-le-Soken, a guest of Lady Byng, the socialite and founder of Thorpe Hall’s beautiful ornamental garden.

Barrie kept company there with Lady Byng’s many other famous guests, including Winston Churchill and Rudyard Kipling. Thorpe Hall even had a Peter Pan Walk, once complete with plynth and statue.

The evolution of Peter Pan is a somewhat odd one. J.M. Barrie was married but childless. While walking his dog in Kensington Gardens one day he befriended three little boys out with their nanny.

He began making up stories for them. The tales gradually became the basis of Peter Pan. Barrie became friends with their parents, too, even going on holiday with them.

It’s difficult to imagine such a scenario occurring in modern-day England’s safety-conscious, almost paranoid setting.

Peter Pan is a strange, improbable story, potentially at least, a little dodgy.

It is also highly entertaining, thrilling and genuinely mystical, dealing, as it does, with that invisible skew-bridge between childhood and adulthood. As for the players in the Mercury production: it seems unfair to single any one of them out.

Nonetheless I would watch out again for the Tuba-playing James Peake, who, using only a furry coat, takes on the persona of Nana, the children’s dog, making it very funny indeed.

I would also look out for Alicia McKenzie, a ball of energy, who plays Tinkerbell. In fact I would go and watch the whole team again, even if they were doing Strindberg’s Easter, which, let me assure you, once had me asleep within half an hour, one evening during the Eighties.

Worth mentioning too, is that the author’s royalties for Peter Pan were bequeathed in perpetuity to Great Ormond Street Hospital, in which both I and Her Outdoors spent time during our respective childhoods.

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