I’ll give the answer first: no, not quite – but with a few
fixes tweaks, this could turn into something really wonderful. There are a lot of wonderful things in it already.
If you read anything about theatre in the British press, the chances are that at some point over the past couple of months you’ve read something about Finding Neverland, the new musical that’s currently playing a tryout run at Curve in Leicester. Based, of course, on the 2004 film about the friendship between J.M. Barrie and Sylvia Llewelyn Davies, the production has attracted a great deal of media attention due to the celebrity of the lead producer, Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein. Although future dates have yet to be announced, the show clearly has ambitions that stretch way beyond Leicester; it’s produced on a scale that would simply be unaffordable for any British regional theatre, and it has a score by Scott Frankel and Michael Korie, whose musical adaptation of Grey Gardens found critical acclaim on Broadway in 2006. The thrust of most of the press coverage has been ‘Hollywood Comes to Leicester!’ – there were even wild rumours at one stage that Gwyneth Paltrow would play Sylvia – and that’s only partly accurate: Weinstein, yes, is Hollywood through and through, but the other major creative participants – bookwriter Allan Knee, director/choreographer Rob Ashford, designer Scott Pask and orchestrator Bruce Coughlin – are mostly drawn from the New York theatre scene. Leicester, then, is not precisely the first place you’d expect to find them putting the finishing touches on a new musical.
Except… actually, it makes sense. While it went shockingly over budget, Curve is an undeniably impressive facility with technical resources that rival or better any major regional theatre in Britain (not to mention a large proscenium stage, which is a rarity in modern institutional theatres). It also, under the artistic directorship of Paul Kerryson, has very quickly developed a name as one of the UK’s most exciting musical theatre venues. It’s become a destination, with an audience that is willing to travel a considerable distance to see their shows. I’m one of them; seeing a show at Curve, for me, involves a round-trip of a little over 200 miles. From where I live there’s no direct train service – it’s actually slightly quicker for me to get to London, which is more or less exactly twice the distance from here – and yet I seem to find myself back in Leicester at least a couple of times a year. So far, it’s always been worth the trip.
And it was certainly worth the trip this time. Although no West End or Broadway dates have been announced for the show, this is very definitely a tryout run, meaning that we’re not quite seeing a finished product; wherever the show ends up, it will more or less certainly have been somewhat revised from the version that’s on show here. That’s no bad thing, because the show as it stands definitely needs a little work; it has, though, terrific potential, and some of it is already quite wonderful.
It’s long enough since I saw the film that I can’t say with any certainty how closely the musical follows the screenplay; I’m not an expert on Barrie either, but I know enough to know that this is not a precisely accurate slice of his autobiography (for a start, Barrie’s acquaintance with the Llewelyn Davies family began some years before the death of Sylvia Llewelyn Davies’s husband, which is not the scenario we see in the musical – here, when Barrie and Sylvia Llewelyn Davies first meet, Arthur Llewelyn Davies has been dead for a year). That doesn’t particularly matter; what matters is that the story the musical tells us feels true. Allan Knee’s commendably economical book sketches a relationship between Barrie, Sylvia and her boys that is absolutely convincing and ultimately very touching indeed; the timeline of the growth of this relationship, the creation of Peter Pan, and Sylvia’s illness and death is (necessarily) compressed, but that’s not a problem – this is a musical, not a documentary. Frankel and Korie’s score is often very attractive indeed, and the Act One finale – “Set Sail”, an extended musical sequence in which Barrie brings Captain Hook to life for the first time – is genuinely thrilling (and has the most memorable tune in the show). The pre-opening preview clip of the climactic duet between Barrie and Sylvia, “In the Blink of an Eye”, presented a contextless performance of the song that, frankly, seemed rather wet; in context, though, it’s absolutely ravishing, and it’s gorgeously sung by Julian Ovenden and Rosalie Craig.
In fact, everything is gorgeously sung. This is very much Ovenden’s show – he’s almost never offstage, and he’s never less than superb – but everyone else, including the children, is working at the same level. The physical production is also very impressive – Scott Pask has provided a set of translucent panels and drops that, with the help of Jon Driscoll and Gemma Carrington’s witty projections and Neil Austin’s subtle lighting, can move from a park to a drawing-room to the front of a theatre to an out-and-out fantasy sequence with dazzling speed. They’ve clearly spent a lot of money, and you can see where it went, but the spectacle, dazzling as it is, is always in the service of the story, even when we’re looking at a pirate ship that fills nearly the entire stage, or a full-size motor car driving through Richmond Park, or a kite-flying sequence that spills out above the audience.
And yet, and yet… the show isn’t quite there yet – but that, of course, is what a tryout run is for. Towards the end of Act One, Barrie gets a number called “Shadows and Fog” that’s everything you would expect from the title and less; it’s lugubrious and meandering, not to mention too long, and it doesn’t really work. There’s a confrontation duet between Barrie and young Peter Llewelyn-Davies early in Act Two that feels too self-consciously complex, both musically and lyrically; it’s impeccably staged and performed, but the lyrics are awkward and do not sit well on the rapidly-shifting, highly chromatic music, and the moment would be better served by something a little simpler. Later on in Act Two, there’s an opening night sequence at the theatre that feels flabby; the scene clearly needs to be a comic tour-de-force, and at the moment it isn’t. These are not fatal flaws; working through these issues is what a tryout run is for, and the show’s highlights – “Set Sail”, yes, but also a lovely, tentative duet between Sylvia Llewelyn Davies and Barrie’s wife Mary, a cricket match sequence, and a swaggering, swashbuckling tango for Barrie, Captain Hook and a band of pirates (two of whom enter by climbing down the chandeliers in Barrie’s study) – demonstrate that the show is very definitely on the right track. There are, here and there, a few moments in Knee’s book in which British characters are forced to deliver lines whose American idiom sounds jarringly wrong – Arthur Conan Doyle suggests going in to dinner by saying “let’s go eat”, and Sylvia tells Barrie that she would be pleased if he would “stop by” – but these, again, are minor fixes. This isn’t a show that requires major surgery. It’s a good show that, with a few tweaks, has the potential to become a great one.
Wherever it ends up, though, they need to keep Julian Ovenden on the payroll. There are many wonderful things in Finding Neverland already, and he towers above them all. He’s already giving a great performance, and he’ll only improve as the show continues – and he’s backed by an intelligent, experienced, hugely talented creative team, and there’s every reason to expect that they’ll make this show soar. Is it there yet? No, not quite – but I’d put money on them getting it right. Finding Neverland is already hugely entertaining; one day soon, it could be magnificent.