After the success of his production of The Wizard of Oz at the Birmingham Rep last Christmas, Liam Steel returns to direct a thrilling re-imagining of Peter Pan this festive season.
“I went back and looked at what the story of Peter Pan is really about,” Liam said. “There is a lot of discussion about what a ‘normal’ family is and to be honest there is no such thing as a normal family.
“So I started with the idea of what a family is. In this version, Wendy and her brothers have been fostered by a single mother in Birmingham. Wendy is pushing against it because this foster mother isn’t her real mum. So I am looking at motherhood, parenthood and families.”
Wendy has been the primary carer for her two brothers and she is very protective of her family unit. Usually, Peter Pan is about Wendy growing up and becoming an adult, but in this version it is almost the opposite. It is about Wendy who has had adulthood forced upon her, so going to Neverland allows her to be a child again.”
Whilst the story of Peter Pan is a classic, Liam wanted to make it a story that everyone can relate to – particularly the people of Birmingham. “I really wanted to make it relevant to families in Birmingham, even with really basic things, like the whole ‘Nanna the dog’ thing. How many kids in Birmingham even know what a nanny is?” Liam said.
“The original is set in Bloomsbury in a middle class household. My starting point was making it relevant to the community of Birmingham. So we are setting it in the city in modern day, just so the audience can relate to the characters on stage.”
Opening in a council flat in Birmingham, the characters are then transported into Neverland which is a world of fantasy. “We still have the flying, a giant crocodile and Captain Hook, it is just through a different prism,” explained Liam.
“So the pirates aren’t in striped t-shirts and bandanas. We have a scene at the beginning with the adults on the estate who are against Wendy and the kids. They are all about there being no ball games or roller skating, they are characters like the caretaker and community policeman. All these adult figures against the children then become the pirates in Neverland. They almost become fantasy version of the originals.”
“The whole show is through Wendy’s eyes, so we are always keeping that at the heart of it.”
What is remarkable is Liam’s vision for the show and the way it will look. “People who know the theatre know the stage is very exposed. The designer Michael Pavelka and I wanted to play with that when it came to the set. For example, we are doing the flying on a bungee line – which has so much more freedom,” he said.
“So you can run, spring and fly, this way of flying allows the characters to go in any direction. It’s never been done before in a show like this, so that’s really exciting.”
One of their innovative ideas is the use of recycling in the show. “With everything going on in the world and with pioneers like Greta Thunberg, we wanted to really emphasise how young people are taking initiative,” he explains.
“The whole show is about adults, and children and this whole notion of children taking responsibility for one of the biggest issues in our world. They are leading the way and I just think is amazing. So we are putting that at the heart of it, because their whole world is about recycling.”
This has inspired the set which is created cleverly with recycled materials. “Because it goes through Wendy’s eyes, everything comes out of that world. So we didn’t want to suddenly go to Neverland and it becomes palm trees,” Liam explains.
“In our version the wheelie bins open and the litter becomes incredibly beautiful vines that grow out of it. Plastic water bottles and crisp packets that have been made in to flowers so all the rubbish in there becomes beautiful.”
Another thing Liam has changed from the original production is his approach to casting. “The original is very male heavy in terms of characters, but we are 50/50. So for example with the Lost Boys, I wanted to have some girls in there. So we are calling them the ‘Lost Ones’, because if there is a nine year-old girl in the audience, I want her to be able to relate too,” Liam says.
“We have also had this approach with diversity, there is a real mix of people in the cast with all different backgrounds. It is completely representative of the population in Birmingham.”
There is a huge amount of pressure when it comes to creating Christmas productions, because it is often the time a child comes to the theatre for the very first time. “It is about a responsibility we have as theatre-makers,” Liam said.
“Christmas shows are really hard work and to have that level of enthusiasm every day is hard. But they have to remember that there will be people in the audience, children in the audience where this is the first piece of theatre they’ve ever seen. We can either make them passionate about theatre for the rest of their lives and turn them onto it or turn them off it.
“The responsibility is huge but a huge privilege as well. Whenever I make theatre that is a family show, I have no sense of ever dumbing it down. For me, family theatre is better than if I was going to make something for adults. The thought that goes into it and the production values are as big as we can possibly make it. I want to make the most amazing piece of theatre that I possible can.”
Although this production isn’t a typical musical, the music featured in it really drives the story along. Composer Asaf Zohar has created an original score for the show. “The music is quite diverse as we want to make it contemporary,” said Liam. “So Peter Pan raps on a handheld microphone, the Pirates are kind of heavy-metal singers and Tinkerbell is an actress in it so she sings a lounge song in the lagoon. The songs relate to the characters, so there is a different musical style for everyone.
It’s certainly bold of Liam to create this adaptation, but his passion for new, exciting theatre is clear. He wants Birmingham to see themselves on stage, but in a completely magical and theatrical way.
“I want them to have a really good time, be entertained and leave on a high. But at the same time, I want them to look at the story of Peter Pan in a different way,” Liam explained.
“I want them to look differently about the world around them, about what a family is and what our relationship is between children and adults. That is the bottom line I think in theatre, we raise questions that enable us to look at the world around us slightly differently to when we went in.”
Peter Pan is on at Birmingham Rep from the 30th of November to the 19th of January. Tickets and information can be found on their website.