By Casidhe Ng
(1,100 words, six-minute read)
The final show of Pangdemonium’s 2018 season, Peter and the Starcatcher is this year’s equivalent of Fun Home or RENT, an exuberant and expensive production intent on ending their year with a bang. In Peter and the Starcatcher, Pangdemonium presents an enchanting narrative with twists of self-reflexivity, fully aware of its fantastical and bizarre nature. It works for the most part, though this tension and back-and-forth fails to be sustained throughout the entirety of both acts. The latter, especially, brings greater attention to the drawbacks of a narrative that constantly reminds you of its artifice. Directed by Tracie Pang, Peter boasts an immensely talented ensemble cast with the technical prowess to match, yet I left the theatre with the feeling of exhaustion – not simply from having absorbed the tremendous energy of the performers, but from the nagging notion that the production may simply be contending with more than it can handle.
Based on the novel of the same name by Ridley Pearson and Dave Barry, the play tells the story of Molly Aster (Carina McWhinnie), a “starcatcher” in training, and her father Lord Leonard Aster (Daniel Jenkins), who set off from 19th-century Singapore on a mission to deliver a secret chest full of magical ‘starstuff’ to the Queen. Molly and the chest end up in an old Chinese junk boat, “The Neverland”, at the hands of captain Bill Slank (Erwin Shah Ismail), whilst aboard the gleaming Royal Navy ship “The Wasp”, notorious pirate Black Stache (Adrian Pang) keeps Lord Aster and the crew hostage in return for the chest. Molly eventually meets a trio of orphans – an unnamed Boy (Thomas Pang; who later becomes Peter Pan), Prentiss, (Salif Hardie) and Ted (Andrew Marko) – and together, they devise a plan to keep the chest of starstuff out of Black Stache’s reach.
Peter begins with an invitation to suspend disbelief, prompting the audience to “use [our] thoughts to hoist the sails” of storytelling. The responsibility of immersion is thrust partly onto us in the grand setup of the performance, and they appeal to our childlike wonder, inviting our sustained curiosity and retaining it for much of the first act. The witty and brisk script unfolds in an energetic display that meets the audience’s willingness to commit.
Complementing Peter’s quickfire dialogue and rapid pacing are occasions of exceptionally creative stage play: each character, prop and set piece on stage seems to take on a life of its own, as animate and inanimate objects alike bleed into one another in a seamless flow of energy. The actors jump in and out of character to frame the performance, sometimes literally commenting on what is unfolding on stage, and at other times forming representations of physical spaces with their own bodies. In one scene involving an imaginary flying cat, Pang deadpans: “We’d like you to now imagine a grown cat in flight”, as a fellow cast member holds up a deliberately unconvincing crumple of grey cloth, bobbing up and down in the air. In another, the ensemble cast lines up in a long row, forming the arch of a narrow tunnel with their bodies. They slowly shuffle right as McWhinnie crawls on the spot, giving the audience an clever illusion of her progressing through the bowels of the ship.
The second act opens with an outstanding cabaret number, with almost all the males of the cast transformed into glittery, glamorous mermaids, singing of their transition from frumpy fish into supernatural feminine beings due to a bit of ‘starstuff’. If not evident before, focus is drawn once more to the male-heavy cast (with McWhinnie being the only woman of a total 12), while the overblown caricatures of the mermaids act as deliberate and humorous subversions of this dynamic. The gender disparity makes the central message of Peter, that of attaining independence and being brave in a male-dominated world, all the more salient. The play is likewise intriguing in its representations of femininity through Molly, who is bratty, precocious and fiercely independent, at once both motherly and naively romantic. This is in no small part due to McWhinnie’s commendable performance, who captures both the fears and potentialities of a girl on the cusp of womanhood, already chafing at the expectations of femininity forced onto her, but embracing all opportunities for growth.
In spite of this, the choice to adapt the work into a Singaporean context appears more problematic. The various references to Singapore seem to serve little purpose aside from comedy, and the continued allusions to a local setting can feel superficial in its attempts to define this iteration of Peter as “Singaporean” in nature. For instance, the repeated referencing of the popular childhood ditty 世上只有妈妈好 (Shi shang zhi you mama hao; “On earth, only mother is good”) feels contrived, and in conflict with the orphans who seem to exhibit no other character traits that hint at their possible Singaporean origins. I also found the portrayal of the Mollusk “natives” of the island worth questioning: while it was evident the play was attempting a more light-hearted, comedic approach to a “Singaporean flavour”, with Hawking Clam (Erwin) and Fighting Prawn (Juwanda Bin Hassim) referring to a certain “Mount Sambal Belacan” and the orphans being offered nasi lemak, the notion of the slave resisting colonial rule and its connection to our history seems to be lost in translation. The multiplicity of facets at play: the Mollusk duo as vehicles for comic relief, as representations of early indigenous Singaporeans, and as vengeful survivors of colonial rule – all these clash rather than coalesce, and the final message is muddied by an inconsistent attempt at adaptation.
Altogether, Peter and the Starcatcher is an enjoyable production, though not without the problems and challenges that can beset attempts at localising foreign plays. On the one hand, I wonder if such references are needed at all: a play like Peter would still possess great appeal without the need for an apparent connection to our local context. It is perhaps worth questioning if tokenistic references to our own culture is preferable to none of these connections whatsoever. For myself, the latter might work for Peter: as prequel to J.M. Barrie’s well-known play/novel, Peter Pan, its appeal and charm is keenly felt, and Pearson and Barry’s wit, optimism and storytelling shines through. In spite of its flaws, the play taps on a dormant sense of wonder, a hidden desire for a carefree naïveté, for all things fantastical and bizarre, and a hopefulness in possibilities. Peter opens a window into a world where all that is possible, even if just for a little while.
Peter and the Starcatcher by Pangdemonium was staged at the Drama Centre Theatre from 28 September to 20 October 2018. This review is based on the performance on 12 October 2018, 8pm.
Casidhe Ng is currently studying at Yale-NUS College, having graduated from School of the Arts, Singapore in 2015, where he majored in Theatre. In his free time, he enjoys binge-watching TV shows and films, as well as reading. His reviews can be found at centre42.sg and The Flying Inkpot.
This review is part of the Performance Criticism Mentorship Programme with Corrie Tan, which is initiated by National Arts Council and organised by ArtsEquator. It is a six-month programme during which theatre critic and mentor Corrie Tan guides mentees Casidhe Ng and Teo Xiao Ting in reviewing one performance a month from September 2018 to March 2018. The program seeks to push the writers’ and the readers’ expectations of the forms and perspectives of critical writing, as a way to expand beyond the conventional shape and depth of criticism in Singapore.