Peter Pan the the Starcatcher Review: A Peter Pan prequel

I have been a Pan fan since early childhood and so was excited to see Peter and the Starcatcher on my recent trip to New York City.  The new play, based on Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson’s novel, is an origin story for the legendary Peter Pan.  It makes use of many of the same enchanting elements found in James Barrie’s original play: pirates, mermaids, crocodiles, bedtime stories, mother figures and the pain of loss.  The play underlines the richness of Barrie’s myth, while still being a mirthful theatrical experience.

At the start of the play, the boy who will become Peter Pan is an unnamed orphan aboard a ship called the Neverland.  Flashbacks show us glimpses of his miserable past in an orphanage.  The Neverland is carrying precious cargo: starstuff.  As any child will tell you, stars have the power to make wishes come true.  Consequently, the star stuff must be carefully guarded so that it doesn’t fall into the wrong hands.  Lord Aster, the ship’s captain, is one of the world’s only starcatchers, who are entrusted with protecting the precious star matter.  Aster’s thirteen-year-old daughter Molly is a starcatcher-in-training, eager to aid in the mission of safely transporting a treasure chest of star stuff.  Conflict comes in the form of the pirate Black Stache (the future Captain Hook) and his crew, who are out to steal the starry treasure.

The fast-paced, madcap production runs like a well-oiled machine.  The first act is a bit confusing as the script works frantically to provide the necessary exposition.  But the show becomes sublime in the second act, when Aster’s crew are shipwrecked on a tropical island (future Neverland), with the pirates in hot pursuit.  For the Peter Pan expert, it is a pleasure to see many elements of the canon fall gracefully into place: the ticking belly of the crocodile, Hook’s missing hand, and the origins of his symbolic feud with Pan.

Peter and the Starcatcher is strongly influenced by British pantomime, a genre seldom seen in the US.  This is ironic given that Barrie intended for the original Peter Pan to elevate children’s theatre beyond the pantomime genre[1].  Men in drag, foppish villains, slapstick gags and innuendo are all in ample supply.  Perhaps the play’s most memorable image is a coterie of drag mermaids, sporting everything from funnels to teapots for breasts.  But unlike a panto, Peter and the Starcatcher is, like its source text, unexpectedly moving.  The production veers skillfully between hilarity and poignancy.

The ensemble cast are all fantastic, but my favourite was Celia Keenan-Bolger as Molly.  The only female in the cast of twelve, she was endearing and delightful as the spunky and precocious heroine.   Also brilliant is Matthew Saldivar as the future Captain Hook.  A camp and outrageous villain, he had the audience in hysterics from his first appearance, with his tongue lolling and eyes rolling.  And as two lost boy prototypes, Eric Peterson and Carson Eldor charmed with a comedic style that would not be out of place in a Judd Apatow film.

The show is also delightful for its minimal props and imaginative stagecraft.  We are asked to believe that flapping yellow glove is a bird (or perhaps a fairy?), that a piece of rope is a doorway or a ladder, that a string of bunting is a row of crocodile teeth.  I was reminded that theatre audiences really will believe whatever you tell them, unlike film audiences, who are hyper sensitive to poor special effects.   This play made me realize that the story of Peter Pan and the theatre share a dependency on the magic potion of belief.  Yes, I do believe in fairies, and I also believe in theatre.

[1] Barrie, J. M.. (1995). Introduction. In: Hollindale, P., Cordner, M., Holland, P., and Wiggins, M. Peter Pan and Other Plays. Oxford: Oxford University Press. xii.

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