Before there was Peter Pan and Captain Hook and the Lost Boys of Neverland, there was a story called “Peter and the Starcatcher”, which is being staged by the Shaw Festival for its 2015 season. It’s a prequel of sorts, explaining the magic behind how Peter Pan stays a boy forever, how Captain Hook became his namesake, and who the Lost Boys are. And it’s also the kind of play where, no matter how young or old you are, there’s enough magic and charm that not seeing is not an option.
Directed by Shaw Festival director Jackie Maxwell, “Peter and the Starcatcher” tells the story of the adventurous teen girl Molly (Kate Besworth) whose father, Lord Astor (Patrick Galligan), knows enough to nurture his daughter’s spirit rather than stifle it. To that end, he’s allowed her to go on a mission to the kingdom of Rundoon with her nanny, the rascally ribald and alliterating Mrs. Bumbrake (Jenny L. Wright). They board the ship Neverland, while Lord Astor is on the close by via the Wasp, which is headed for small bursts of risk and danger by virtue of carrying a trunk full of magical “starstuff” (“all” Molly’s ship contains is a trio of orphaned boys who are to be sold into slavery).
Hinjinks ensue, of course, when the light in the loafers pirate Black Stache (a highly entertaining Martin Happer) and his literal-minded sidekick Smee (the equally fun to watch Jonathan Tan) board Neverland in search of the magical trunk. But oh no! Black Stache is in for a surprise when he discovers that the ship’s captain, the nasty Slank (played with much gusto by Graeme Somerville), has swapped the trunks. Complicating matters more for Black Stache is Mrs. Bumbrake’s new beau, the lovable if rough around the edges Alf (Shawn Wright) who, when he’s not busy nibbling at Mrs. Bumbrake’s neck and arms and, well, just about every other part of her, is eager to do his part in saving the day.
The eventual hero of the play is found in the only nameless boy of the three orphans, who follows his fate with the same kind of reluctance acceptance as Harry Potter. He’s had a scarred childhood but only needs someone to believe in him; when that person comes along in the shape of Molly, Boy blossoms into Peter, a hero who doesn’t need to constantly assert himself as a leader the way fellow orphan Prentiss (James Daly) does (and it also helps he can stay on track instead of being distracted by food the way Andrew Broderick’s Ted is).
There is plenty of dancing, singing, energetic grappling and fighting, and some really beautifully-orchestrated choreography from movement director Valerie Moore. In particular, the scene where Molly is discovering what lies behind various doors on the ship is done in such a way that it’s easy to believe you’re on the ship and not in the theatre. The whole play, really, is filled with moments like that one where your imagination is free to run in a childlike way and maybe, just maybe, magic really does exist.
And with all actors perfectly in time with each other’s rhythms and comedic lines — you have to see Black Stache’s amputation to really understand Happer’s humourous abilities, as well as marvel at Tan’s skill in keeping a straight face during his most dopiest lines — “Peter and the Starcatcher” is filled with the right amount of depth and poignancy to make an impact for any audience member. One of the best parts of “Peter” is all the layered material for the adults, with topical and pop culture references that are both understood by the kiddies and contain double entendres for the older ones.
Besides, haven’t you ever wondered what came before Peter Pan and Captain Hook?