Like most middle-class parents, I feel duty-bound to take my children to the theatre occasionally. Why is this? I tell myself it is a way of broadening their horizons, but really it is all about class. It is the same reason I encourage them to play with wooden toys and eat broccoli and say ‘please’. I want to have nice, middle-class children so people will think I’m a nice, middle-class man.
Judging from my trip to see Peter Pan last week with my son and daughter, the whole enterprise is doomed. ‘Will it be in 3D daddy?’ asked six-year-old Sasha as we strolled across Kensington Gardens.
‘Yes, of course it will. This is live theatre, remember? We’re not going to the cinema.’
‘Will we have to wear those funny glasses?’
‘What? No. And stop picking your nose.’
I told them beforehand that talking in the theatre was verboten, but they soon forgot this when the curtain went up. It quickly became obvious that this is quite an ambitious production of Peter Pan, with no expenses spared. For instance, the character of Nana the dog is not played by a man in a fur suit, but is an elaborate marionette operated by a puppeteer clad in a black bodysuit. This plunged four-year-old Ludo into confusion.
‘Daddy?’ he asked in a voice that could be heard in the balcony. ‘Why is that man standing behind the dog?’
‘You’re not supposed to be able to see him,’ I whispered.
‘Can you see him?’
‘Well, yes, I can, but I’m pretending I can’t.’
‘Just watch the show, OK? And stop picking your nose.’
He didn’t stay silent for long. The next character to appear on stage was Tinkerbell. In this production she’s played by a very striking Spanish actress called Itxaso Moreno. ‘Daddy?’ he asked. ‘Is Tinkerbell a boy or a girl?’ I could have sworn I saw Ms Moreno flinch as Ludo’s voice echoed across the stage.
I was beginning to regret taking them when, at the end of the first scene, there was a marvellous coup de théâtre. Peter Pan and the three Darling children fly out of the nursery window and make their way to Neverland against the backdrop of a breathtaking videorama. Projected on to a giant screen encircling the stage is a constantly changing, bird’s eye view of London and watching the four children bob up and down in front of it, 30 feet above the stage, it really does look as though they’re flying. This, surely, would convince my children of just how magical the theatre can be. ‘Pretty impressive, huh?’ I whispered to my daughter.
‘But Daddy,’ she said, indicating the giant screen. ‘I thought you said it was in 3D.’
Afterwards, in the car on the way home, I tried to engage them in a discussion about the play. Didn’t they feel they had got something out of it which they hadn’t got out of our trip to see Ice Age 3 the previous week?
‘Like what?’ asked Sasha.
‘Well, it was real, for starters. Ice Age 3 is just a cartoon.’
This caused consternation in the back seat.
‘No it’s not, daddy,’ said Sasha.
‘Silly daddy,’ said Ludo, beginning to laugh.
They were both absolutely adamant that Ice Age 3, which they’d seen in 3D, was a live action film. Not only that, but they were incapable of grasping the distinction between watching a film and witnessing a live performance. As far as they were concerned, the only difference between Peter Pan and Ice Age 3 is that the special effects were less impressive.
No doubt some critics would argue that the fault lies with this production. By relying on digital technology to try to create an arresting spectacle, the people behind this play are trying to compete with state-of-the-art Holly-wood films and, by that standard, Peter Pan will always fall short. The producers should have trusted J.M. Barrie’s story to engage the children’s imagination and not attempted to bedazzle the audience with special effects.
But I fear my children will never be impressed by the theatre, however good the production. In spite of being restricted to an hour of television a week they have already been sucked into what Wyndham Lewis called The Moronic Inferno. Next to the Shepherd’s Bush Vue, the attraction of Kensington Gardens on a summer evening will always fade into insignificance.
Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.
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