I’m rarely stumped when it comes to giving a star rating for a production

I make no bones about my disdain for the whole system, reducing what can easily be years of preparation and hard work into an emotionless evaluation of a single performance. It’s all self-promoting fodder. But that is the world in which we unfortunately operate.

It has been two days since I saw Neverland and I am still completely at a loss as to what rating to give this show. And that is because Neverland might be one of the most frustrating shows I have ever witnessed in all my years of reviewing theatre. It contains moments of heart-breaking sadness, spine-tingling joy and the most magical levels of childlike glee. But it is also a confused mess, baffling in its overly complicated immersive qualities and giving very little opportunity for an audience to fully relate to any of its characters.

Vault Festival 2018 NeverLand

Tom Figgins & Lucie Treacher

Writer and director Alexander Wright fuses fantasy and fiction through the life of J.M. Barrie (Dominic Allen) and his most famous work about the boy who never wanted to grow up. Pan is present in name, but never quite in character – eldest child Peter (Michal Ish-Horowicz) grapples with believing, a boy on the cusp of becoming a man. Wright weaves together a depiction of the life of woe that Barrie (Allen) was subjected to, along with the world of fantasy into which he most likely escaped. His two favourite Llewelyn-Davies children, George (Lucie Treacher) and Michael (Casey Jay Andrews), died young; their mother Sylvia (Simran Hunjun) passing away only a few years before. We lament and empathise with Wright’s tale, until Allen delivers a self-aggrandising speech at the Neverland, one that aims to inspire and empower, but ends up alienating and severing all connection to the audience that the show has painstakingly built up over the previous 75 minutes.

Vault Festival 2018 NeverLand

Dominic Allen

Neverland is truly immersive but falls down with too many poor signposts. Characters grab one or two audience members and run off into small rooms with them to strategise, concoct and plot. Others are left in a central space, disconnected and bewildered. There is no structure to hang each option off, no instructions for the audience to grasp onto or a tale that they are familiar with. A lack of rules may fit with the ways of Neverland, but in immersive theatre it leaves spectators without a reference point, trying to grapple with a game that they have never previously played. It’s inevitable for a large proportion to give up trying to get to grips with the adventure. We become as lost as the boys, but without the sense of youthful abandon.

Vault Festival 2018 NeverLand

Michal Ish-Horowicz

Technically too, Neverland is flawed and as such, all too quickly loses that which it puts so much effort in to build. The cast are too often drowned out by the accompaniment, a well executed but confused mix of earnest Celtic inspirations and driving jazz rock anthems. Sounds from various scenes in disparate rooms bleed into each other, leaving a somewhat chaotic acoustic in the central space.

All of this implies a production that loses its way and fails to connect to the source material

Except that Neverlanddoes connect with the story, albeit in sporadic moments. The start of the show feels like a game that we all want to play, a tale of make believe between the children just before bedtime. Their joint harmonies support Hunjun’s spectacular vocal, one that blows us all away from the very first note. We are at the fairy ball and we choose to believe because that is where the magic happens. We are hooked in by all the nostalgia.

Vault Festival 2018 NeverLand

Casey Jay Andrews

Apart from the over the top final speech, Allen as Barrie is a joy to behold. His imaginative narration is both spellbinding and gut-wrenching, at times going as far as emotionally perfect. Combined with Gavin Whitworth’s close harmonies that lament and mourn, the pathos overflows and overpowers any barriers that we audience members may have concocted to resist connecting with the characters. We are swept away on the tide or grief.

Vault Festival 2018 NeverLand

Neverland is an immersive theatre of make believe. It’s the kind of game that you played as a child, one where you make up new rules on the spot and take them as truth. In a small group, this is exciting, adventurous and full of joy. But we are a larger glut of spectators and we have unfortunately grown up. Neverland needs more structure to suspend our disbelief – in many ways, it’s a sad reminder that we are no longer the care free version of our past selves.

And this is where my bafflement stems from

I want to reconnect to the child within and be swept away on the journey. But the adult in me notices that some things are too muddled, lacking in impact. There are tender moments, introspective glimpses into the characters’ psyches where everything makes sense with overwhelming clarity. Neverland is hopeful pathos; it’s youth versus growth; it dances and sings in the face of death and war. My inner child and my pragmatic adult remain utterly conflicted.

 

To read more about Neverland, which plays the VAULT Festival until 18 March 2018, follow the company on Twitter (@NeverlandShow) or visit the venue website.

Click here for a spotlight with writer and director Alexander Wright.