Finding Neverland at Curve, Leicester. Review by Lizz Brain
NEARLY two weeks of previews, copious amounts of publicity and a multi-millionaire Hollywood producer at the helm. So how did opening night find Neverland? writes Lizz Brain.
Against the backstory of JM Barrie as the struggling writer of a failed latest play, we explore how his friendship with a widow and her sons saves his career and his spirit.
It's very much a show of two halves, and not just in the sense of act one and two: there's the love story narrative of a frustrated writer meeting his muse and her sons, who ultimately provide his inspiration.
And there's the 'imagination' sequences featuring pirates, mermaids, fairies and sword-fights, steering the show away from grown-up musical theatre and towards Peter Pan panto.
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That's great for a piece billed as a family show, but the two never really sit comfortably, and although the audience was clearly delighted at the spectacle of a vast pirate ship sailing through the rear of the set, in terms of connecting with a story, emotional substance will always win over style.
There's plenty of style from Scott Pask's sets – from the vintage car and pirate ship to the enormous stairway to heaven covered in hundreds of flowers (as well as Paul Wills' costumes) – the show oozes its huge budget from every pore.
Yet Finding Neverland's most successful moments are the simplest thanks to beautifully-considered performances from the principals: Julian Ovenden and Rosalie Craig are strong, intelligent actors who make the growing relationship between Barrie and widow Sylvia utterly convincing and heartwarming. Also huge hats-off though to the four boys in the company (young Harry Polden was a standout on opening night). But some of the smaller roles suffer from being underwritten, with both Clare Foster and Liz Robertson excellent yet woefully-underused as the “other women” in the couple's lives.
Although Scott Frankel and Michael Korie's songs are pleasing to the ear and sit well within the musical theatre genre, there's not a song which lingers in the memory after the curtain, although they are sung to perfection under David Charles Abell's sterling musical direction. In spite of the lack of big production numbers from director and choreographer Rob Ashford, the simply-staged duet “James Never Mentioned” where Sylvia meets Barrie's wife Mary, is one of the show's best and most emotionally-stirring.
It's pleasant, enjoyable theatre and the end is predictably emotional for any parent, but ultimately it's a show with an identity issue. Finding Neverland has a lot of great qualities, it just needs to really find itself.