Peter Pan Goes Wrong focuses on the inept and accident-prone Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society, trying to retell J.M. Barrie’s classic tale of Peter Pan. Last year, I visited the Apollo Theatre, London West End to see this comedy, produced by Mischief Theatre. The writing style plays off the audience’s knowledge, thereby inverting this well-known story. After thoroughly enjoying the experience, I was delighted at the chance to see it again when a special theatre Christmas edition was to be broadcasted live on television.
The question is: Can theatrical slapstick comedy effectively come across through television? The comedy was designed for the theatre; part of what makes it so spectacular is the fast paced dialogue and immense quick changes in props and costumes which are all done live before our eyes. The difficulty with the television broadcast was that the viewers were not able to fully see the scale of the production.
Although the medium of television offers close-up shots of the characters’ facial expressions, sometimes further emphasising the comedy, what it lost was the franticness of everything going wrong and the audience not knowing where to look. In Act Two, the revolving set continues to spin round revealing many different disasters in all three sets including the nursery, the forest and the pirate ship. Whilst at the theatre, there was a raucous laughter from the audience and the actors’ simultaneous problems increased the chaotic atmosphere within the theatre. The ability to choose where you wish to focus your attention, adds a more pleasurable feel to being part of a theatre audience.
Also whilst watching the television broadcast, the atmosphere was not the same. With a full house of 775 filled seats, the audience fed off each other’s laughter. Laughter can be deemed a social gesture and when a small section of the audience started laughing, the laughter became infectious until the whole room was in hysterics. Very rarely have I experienced an all-inclusive hysterical audience but Mischief Theatre fully delivered to make this happen.
As Arthur Schopenhauer states in The Philosophy of Laughter and Humor, ‘The greater and more unexpected, in the apprehension of the laughter, this incongruity is, the more violent will be his laughter’. This was certainly the case, as the scenes were crafted so that events intentionally go wrong, but often caught the audience off guard. When the characters tried their best to continue the story of Peter Pan, it made the play even funnier. It is almost as if every actor’s worst nightmares came alive onstage and the audience were witness to it.
So overall, the comedy works better in theatre due to the sense of immediacy but nevertheless both portrayals of the play in theatre and television are successfully amusing due to Mischief Theatre’s fully competent and committed cast of actors.