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Review: Peter Pan In Serangoon Gardens by W!ld Rice

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★★★★☆ (Performance attended 29/11/19)
Pan-tastic end to W!ld Rice’s 2019 season reminding audiences of the magic of childhood and belief. 

The wonderful thing about W!ld Rice’s pantomimes is that while very much focused on creating a year-end show that children can enjoy, these same shows are also very much family affairs, allowing even the adult audiences to slip into the same mindset and simple joy as the younger audience members. In essence, the pantomimes are almost always an opportunity for audiences to experience a child-like sense of wonder once again, with the power of theatre.

With their 2019 pantomime, more than ever, W!ld Rice harnesses that idea in full, with a brand new interpretation of J.M. Barrie’s classic story Peter Pan. Playing on the title Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, Peter Pan in Serangoon Gardens sees writer Thomas Lim take the story from London to Singapore and peppers it with local references and flavour. From a ‘buaya’ that has swallowed a handphone (instead of a clock) to nightly cod liver oil emulsions, the localisation is done smoothly and feel completely natural within the context of the story. While it is his first pantomime script, Thomas has done an excellent job of retaining the essence of the original tale, inserting camp and sly humour that has equal appeal to both adults and children, and crafting poignant, emotional moments that hit adult audiences especially hard.

Directed by Ivan Heng, as the fourth show to be performed in their new theatre, W!ld Rice seems to have finally figured out how to best use the space afforded to them. Unlike their other pantomimes in the past, there is far more intimacy afforded to Peter Pan that truly makes it feel like we are being taken into the world of Neverland, and even more willing to partake in the audience interactions. John C. Dinning’s set boasts elements such as a large pirate ship easily constructed and deconstructed by stagehands for a climactic scene, or an intricate, “tree” house acting as the Lost Boys’ headquarters the actors actually climb in and out of.

This is well-supported by Brian Gothong Tan’s multimedia design, which utilises the back wall to present images of the sky and stars as characters take flight across the Singapore skyline, and projecting a pond full of giant koi fish across the floor to maximise the stage space. Environments are produced with minimal sets and props, and allow us to believe in the realism and world of Neverland. Also, as with any Peter Pan staging, the most magical moment lies in presenting the ability to fly. While the harnesses and cables supporting the actors are clearly visible, it is to the production’s credit that this does not detract from the suspension of disbelief, thanks to the look of pure joy and wonder on the actors’ faces as they find themselves suspended in mid-air.

Julian Wong’s soundtrack is also a clear highlight of the pantomime, cleverly composed and arranged. Going beyond simply filler in between conversation, the range of songs featured showcase thought and creativity that go into them, spanning a number of genres from choral numbers complaining about the daily routine of school, to jazz-inspired pieces by sensual mermaids, to clashing melodies used to intensify and portray two characters arguing. Supported by Joel Tan’s lyrics and well-performed by Colin Yong (bass), Daniel Chai (guitar), Din Safari (bass), Feri Susanto (guitar), Rizal Sanip (drums) and Vicknes Vinayak Veerappan (drums), the music of Peter Pan is not only appropriate in each scene, but is designed to hits the right emotional notes musically, shifting between Broadway to the cinematic as necessary, and elevating the production to one that can stand on its own as a musical, beyond a simple holiday theatrical affair. 

What really makes Peter Pan work however, is the performances of the very talented cast, who bring each of their characters out in full, playing each one with gusto. Simultaneously capturing her character’s innocence and sense of responsibility, Mae Elliessa shines in her role as Wendy, playing the ingénue role well without feeling cloying, showing off her crisp, clear voice as she sings, and certainly an actress whose star is on the rise. Dwayne Lau, Benjamin Chow and Andrew Marko play various roles to comedic brilliance, hitting their comic timings well whether as bumbling pirates dancing around or camwhore mermaids flirting with Peter Pan. Andrew Marko in particular steals the spotlight each time he appears as the extra large ‘Ting Tong Bell’ (a parody of the pint-sized Tinkerbell), complete with a lighted floral skirt and speaking only in pig Latin (cleverly used to thinly disguise insults and expletives).

As the nefarious Captain Hook, Siti Khalijah Zainal excels as she fully embraces her role, balancing comically over the top villainy and genuinely feeling like a threat when she encounters Peter Pan. And even the 15 First Stage! Kids featured are used well, with most of them given enough lines to warrant their presence, particularly as members of the Lost Boys (Tube Gallery’s interpretive animal costumes are inspired and aesthetically-pleasing). If anything, they’ve been well-trained to play their roles – sing together, look cute, and warm our hearts each time they come out.

Finally, as far as Peter Pans go, Pam Oei is a rather unexpected choice for one. Besides the fact that she’s playing against gender, Pam’s portrayal of Peter Pan at times feels heavy, as if she is bearing a world-weariness beyond her character’s years, along with her lower singing range, all of which seems to go directly against the concept of ‘the boy who never grew up’. She acts spritely and joyously, but seems burdened by a deep-seated internal fear that nags each time Peter is reminded of Wendy’s yearning to return home. Yet, perhaps that is precisely the point of casting Pam, as a commentary on the futility of eternal youth, representative of the hopeless battle against the ravages of time even as Peter refuses to age. This is an adult in a child’s body, caught in a state of arrested development who knows he should grow up, but fights vehemently against that destiny with his bravado and overconfident ego, desperate to hold on to Neverland.

In the hands of Thomas Lim, Peter Pan becomes a work that as bright, hilarious and colourful as it is, comes laced with a lethal dose of realism towards the end, adding a touch of melancholia as he allows Wendy to leave Neverland behind. As Peter returns to Serangoon Gardens and faces friends he no longer recognizes, we feel the pinch of time and a deep longing for the childhood of our past while recognising the inevitable need to grow up eventually. Peter Pan in Serangoon Gardens then, is a reminder of the sweet escapism we indulged in so often as children, and a chance for audiences to experience that again in the space of a theatre over the two hours we spend there. While it does acknowledge that we must all return to the real world one day, what it also does is encourage us to celebrate and cherish the moments we do have in our busy lives to be a child again and take a break from our worries and anxieties. A welcome return to form, Peter Pan soars with its evocative music, strong performances and cheeky, engaging and cohesive script, convincing audiences that magic can happen if you just believe.

Peter Pan in Serangoon Gardens plays from 21st November to 28th December 2019 at the Funan Theatre @ W!ld Rice. Tickets available from SISTIC

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