“That’s what makes him beautiful, and that’s what makes him sad”
One assumes it is the reality of funding a big-budget musical these days, but there are 17 names above the title of the musical adaptation of Finding Neverland, 17! The most famous of those is Harvey Weinstein whose Miramax studio made the Johnny Depp/Kate Winslet starring film and it is his driving force that has seen the show make its world premiere at Leicester’s Curve theatre, directed by Rob Ashford. The story of how writer JM Barrie found the creative spark for Peter Pan through his growing connection, after a chance encounter, with the Llewelyn Davies family of lost boys and their smart mother Sylvia is entirely charming in Weinstein’s hands. And given his Hollywood track record, it should be no surprise that the show achieves just the right level of gooey sentimentality, whilst avoiding becoming overly twee or sickly sweet.
Peter Pan references are gorgeously threaded throughout the tale, a series of moments that provide a whole set of inspirations for his new play after suffering critical disappointment with his last. Whether a stunning bit of a shadow work or a glimpse of the night sky – which leads to one of the loveliest songs of the night, ‘Neverland’ – Ashford ensures they don’t become overplayed, especially in the restraint with which he employs the flying gear. Scott Pask’s scenic design allows for some grand flourishes in the key set pieces, some of which provide a little more stage magic than others and Ashford’s own choreography is used sparingly but with great purpose to lift the potential of scenes, especially in the pirate tango when the writer duels with his psyche – personified by Hook – as to how the story should properly end.
That Allan Knee’s book smooths out any controversy or kinks to Barrie’s story, like the manner of his incorporation into the Llewelyn Davies family network, feels an acceptable compromise for a family show and there’s a gentle wave of comedy, though perhaps not quite enough to justify labelling it a “musical comedy” as the poster seems intent on doing. It does seem more suited for families with older children, in its current incarnation at least. What really doesn’t work though is the emotional impact of a key later event which is completely fudged with the introduction of a baffling staircase which distracts and undermines what should be a hugely moving moment, especially with its random tailing off.
Scott Frankel’s songs are intriguing, if perhaps a little undistinguished. The score is less about insistent melody but more concerned with a cohesive sound of colour and character which accumulates into something charmingly effective. Personally I would have more intermingling of vocal lines, more duets and counterpointing trios to provide striking interest but some numbers here are gorgeously written – I particularly loved James Never Mentioned…, a duet between Mary and Sylvia which starts off like it might swell into a new shoulder-pad-fest akin to Chess’ ‘I Know Him So Well’ but instead keeps a delicate restraint which suits the different but equally pained emotion of both women, given beautiful voice by Clare Foster and Rosalie Craig.
And I have to say I really appreciated the casting choices that were made here. Outlandish rumours suggested names like Nicole Kidman and Gwyneth Paltrow were being courted by Weinstein, but what we’ve ended up with is a quality cast of British musical theatre talent refreshingly free of stunt casting at any level. So people like Oliver Boot have the opportunity to play the swashbuckling cad Blunt, Barrie’s most-feared critic who inspires the character of Hook, who Boot also entertainingly doubles as. Norman Bowman provides sterling compassionate support as the friendly PG Wodehouse, Liz Robertson brings a statuesque dignity to Sylvia’s initially cool mother, Mrs Du Maurier, and Clare Foster gives the loveliest personality to overlooked wife Mary, pragmatic to the last.
The four boys playing the young Llewelyn Davies (I couldn’t find the names for this matinée performance) were pleasingly excellent, Peter in particular is a peach of a part with a great comic beat behind his childhood obstinacy. As Sylvia, Rosalie Craig personifies the right kind of directness and youthful maternity that is instantly engaging, completely dedicated to her children and aware too late of the opportunities for herself, she is captivating and sounds like a dream throughout. And if Julian Ovenden doesn’t quite delve into any of the conflict at the heart of Barrie’s character, he does effectively portray the endearing boyishness of the man who won’t grow up and his voice swoops like a smooth chocolate fountain (plus he looks ok in a kilt…). The work across the whole ensemble is so good here, that it really would be a shame to lose any of it when the show makes its eventual move into the West End, especially as it proves the quality and depth of British MT talent. But that is perhaps an idealistic viewpoint in the current economic climate and with a group of 17 investors to keep happy, it is sadly not hard to see the potential introduction of a few so-called ‘star names’ cast more for their popularity than for their appropriateness for the role.
But lest I get too gloomy about the future, you still have just over a week to catch Finding Neverland in its current format and I have no hesitation about recommending it now. It finds its strength in adhering to the traditional but in executing it with a modern sharpness, and it was this hint of the simplicity of the stories of my childhood that left me feeling really quite moved by the end, as the sounds of David Charles Abell’s expertly directed orchestra washed over me one last time. Whatever the future holds for this musical, and I suspect with just a few changes it will have some considerable success, there’s something special about being able to catch it at the beginning of its journey, especially when it starts as confidently as this.