This weekend I took my mother to see another theatre show – Peter Pan at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre. It’s another venue we’d never been to before, and we loved the idea of watching a show in the outdoors. And, as usual, we had chosen an accessible performance that included a touch tour and audio description from the wonderful folks at VocalEyes. I’m pleased to say we had a lovely time, and the weather also behaved itself, so I thought I’d tell you about it.
Getting To The Theatre
I had booked the tickets for this show ages ago via the website. They have a link to a form on their accessibility page, which you can fill out if you want to attend an accessible performance. You can ring them up, of course, but I thought I’d try the form as it was nice and easy to fill out. It took a while for them to get back to me, to the point where I assumed perhaps they hadn’t got my submission and might have to ring up after all. But then I did eventually get a phonecall, explaining that technical issues had meant form submissions had got stuck in the system. So to their credit, they did get back to me in the end, and I was able to confirm and pay for my booking over the phone, which was quick and easy. The tickets were then emailed through, which I could then print off and take with us when this Saturday finally came around.
Walking to the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre from the nearest Tube station, Baker Street, isn’t necessarily the easiest route if you’ve never done it before and are visually impaired. I had already scoped out where the theatre was in the park itself on a previous visit, so I had some idea of the nearby landmarks (there’s a big café not too far away for instance). But on that occasion I hadn’t come from Baker Street, I’d walked through the park from the far side, near Regent’s Park station.
So this time around I did need to use Google Maps to get us there, which worked, but there is the potential to get a bit confused once or twice, as the park is a bit of a maze if you’re unfamiliar with it, and it’s not easy to spot the signs to the theatre. You’ll have to cross a wide, but thankfully quiet, road to get to the main inner circle area of the park, and you cross a bridge over the massive and beautiful lake as well, which you get to walk alongside for a short way. Thankfully we were fine though.
So if you are going there for the first time, give yourself a few extra minutes just in case, even more if you want to enjoy the sights on your way through. That’s what we did, because we were a little bit early. We made sure we found the theatre first though, to be on the safe side. And it’s easy enough to spot, as the pathway opens up in front of the entrance, and it has lettering on top of the single floor building that says Open Air Theatre. Plus there are posters for upcoming shows, and there was an A-board on the ground outside listing the show times. So as long as you’re on the right path, you can’t miss it.
The staff told us and the other attendees what time we needed to be there for the touch tour to start. So, rather than just stand around, Mum and I went off for a little walk for about 15 minutes, looking at the flowers and the impressive fountain they have nearby.
Exploring The Stage
We then returned to the theatre, where we were welcomed by the friendly staff and taken through to the bar area, where we waited together for a few minutes until they were ready to take us to the stage. It wasn’t a long wait, and we were able to sit in the shade out of the sun during that time. There were about 12 of us on the tour I think, so it was a nice manageable number. Some of the group were taken on a slightly longer route to the stage that was more level, while the rest of us were taken down the central aisle of steps between the seating, and across a short bridge on to the stage.
The stage itself is circular in shape, with trees behind it, and the audience sits on a curve around the front edge, with the rows of seats getting progressively higher as they go back. So everybody gets a good view, there’s no real risk of anybody’s heads getting in the way. The audience sits with their back to the sun as well, which is a sensible way of laying things out.
Obviously you need to cover up with sunhats and sunscreen, as we did, given that it is all completely open. There is no roof in the theatre, not even over the stage, so if it rains, you need to be prepared to get wet! Thankfully it didn’t for us, the weather was glorious. It was very warm and summery, but without being too hot or humid or bright, as there was a little bit of cloud cover to offset the height of the sun. If the weather is so bad they have to cancel the performance, I don’t think they give refunds, but I do believe they allow you to exchange your tickets for another show. But you’d have to check the terms and conditions or contact them to be sure.
Anyway, back to the stage. It was set out to represent a First World War hospital, with 3 hospital beds on the left and 2 on the right, each of which had props placed upon them for us to look at. I’ll talk about those in a minute. The back wall had an arched window with strips of tape criss-crossed over the panes, and next to that was a Lord Kitchener poster from the war saying “Your Country Needs You”. There was also a small metal medical cabinet there at the start of the show too, in which Tinkerbell was trapped.
And around the front edge of the stage was a First World War trench, which the short bridge to the stage had taken us over. This had signs on it for No-Man’s Land and The Front Line. A battered Union Jack flag was also flying high above the stage, and there was a cannon to one side of the stage as well – never fired, just there for decoration. The left side of the stage also had a wooden platform, in mid-air between 2 tall wooden posts, that characters would sit or stand on sometimes, to watch what was happening on the stage below.
The outer frame of the stage was critical to the action as well though, as it consisted of metal rigging, like big crane towers. There was one of these standing tall on each side of the stage, with a horizontal wooden beam connecting them. And that horizontal beam was crossed beneath at right angles by a few more lengths of the same rigging, laid flat and pointing towards the audience.
This rigging was used for the flying scenes. During the fantasy Neverland scenes, Peter Pan – and other characters when appropriate – would be connected to a harness, as you’d expect. Then other characters, still in their soldier regalia, would climb up and down the towers at the side to control the flight – so to make the character fly up, the climber comes down, and vice-versa, much like a pulley action. What’s more, it was deliberately obvious that it was being done, with the cables being very thick and clear to see.
The onus of the play is on the characters using the real world materials available to them to create the fantasy world they’re escaping to. It’s not about things being impossibly magical in that sense. Rather, it’s about using one’s imagination, and not just in terms of the flying The same mindset applied to everything the characters interacted with, much of which we got to handle during the touch tour.
Props & Models
Everything was made from materials the soldiers had available to them around the hospital. So there was no realistic fairy model for Tinkerbell, no fancy animatronic puppets for birds or the crocodile, no prosthetics to turn people in the mermaids, nothing fancy and high-tech like that. It was much more hand-made and cleverer than that.
The closest you had to real things were the helmets worn by the soldiers, which we got to handle, and the hats worn by the pirates, which could increasingly fancy and decorative, so they were wonderful to look at and hold. The pirates also had huge metal swords, some of which were really long, while the Lost Boys in Neverland had wooden swords, and we got hold all of those too.
The more imaginative items were even more impressive though. The model of the Never Bird was enormous for instance, with a huge wingspan made of paper-like material, and a big neck made out of tubing to give it flexibility of movement, and had to be controlled on strings by 2 puppeteers. At one point during the show, it exited the stage by being taken up the central aisle, which we were sat next to, and it was pecking at some of the audience members along the way!
The mermaid costume was also huge, taking up the length of the hospital bed it was sat on, and again it used large tubing to help create a flexible body. It was very colourful too, it looked really cool. And nearby, sets of pyjamas had had their legs tied in such a way to represent fins, so they looked like models of fish that could be carried around as if swimming. Indeed, the same tricks for flying were also used for swimming – by simply pretending that the scene is taking place underwater (i.e. in the lagoon), flying through the air basically looked like swimming.
Tinkerbell was adorable, and very inventive. Her head and body were made out of a kerosene lamp, that would light up when she was speaking, and her arms were made from the arms of angle-poised lamps. It was very impressive to handle it and look at it closely. To make Tinkerbell fly, a lady puppeteer simply carried this model around the stage, making it do all the necessary actions. And when she spoke in the unintelligible way that Tinkerbell did, her voice was pitched higher by the sound system, which gave it a strangely appropriate and interesting sound for a fairy. And even though you couldn’t directly understand her, Tinkerbell was very funny.
The crocodile, meanwhile, wasn’t a model as such. Instead, it consisted of a line of soldiers, like a conga line in effect, all dressed in their green uniforms to represent the crocodile’s body. The soldier at the front was holding a big stepladder out in front of him, snapping the legs together as if the crocodile was snapping its jaws together. And the soldier behind him had a ticking clock, of course, because the crocodile had swallowed it and thus couldn’t sneak up on Captain Hook without being heard. The crocodile did get Hook in the end though, but I won’t spoil it by saying how. It was very clever though. I know the show isn’t open long, but if it opens there again next year, I don’t want to spoil everything about it, especially that little twist.
The rest of the stage was used to full effect as well. The beds were regularly placed in different positions, even stacked up together or placed on their sides, to represent different locations in the story as necessary, and there were a few trapdoors in the stage that people could go in and out of. Wendy’s house was cleverly constructed as well, in terms of its colourful exterior and colourful interior in their respective scenes. And rope rigging was brought in from the sides of the stage, connected in the centre and hoisted up in the air when Captain Hook’s ship was needed. There were all sorts of inventive little touches, and the stage was transformed very quickly from one scene to the next.
So, after all that, what of the play itself? It was fantastic. I’ve never actually read the Peter Pan story or seen any films of it before, so although I know the basics of it, it’s still a bit unfamiliar. And I know this version is a different adaptation of it to normal. But we loved it, as did the audience, and I know it’s got a hugely positive reaction in the reviews online as well. As you’ll have gathered by now, the play is basically set in a First World War hospital, where the injured soldiers, in conjunction with the nurses, use the story of Peter Pan to escape to Neverland, becoming the Lost Boys and having fun and adventures.
There is a bit of music and singing throughout the production, including some recognisable songs from the war period, but it’s more complementary to the action and in the background, adding to the events taking place, or it helps to bridge the gap in scene changes. The lady who does a lot of the singing, as the character of Mrs Darling, has got a lovely voice. None of the other characters notice her, only the audience do.
All of the characters are great too, and you can tell the actors are enjoying themselves. And you can’t blame them either when you get to fly around and have so much fun! Peter Pan, as you’d hope and expect for the title character, is particularly great, full of innocence and eager for fun and adventure, and he has a heart as well. And all of his co-stars do a wonderful job, including Wendy and the Lost Boys, and Captain Hook with his companion Smee.
The emphasis is very much on fun and escapism, and there’s a lot of humour in there. But there are also touching moments as well, and the realities of war are incorporated sensitively and respectfully. The harsh truths of war and the losses inherent in such conflicts are certainly not overlooked or diminished, especially in the closing scenes.
The audio description also worked really well, but then I expect nothing less from VocalEyes given the numerous experiences I’ve had with them now. After we had done the touch tour, Mum and I collected our headsets and sat in the bar area, while waiting for the gates to open for everyone to take their seats. And while we were waiting, another lady started asking me about the headsets, initially assuming that they were for the hard of hearing. So she was quite surprised and very interested to hear about the audio description. It was clearly something she’d never encountered before, and there’s no reason she would have done if she’s never needed it, so I gladly took the opportunity to chat to her about it.
During the show we had 2 people doing the description, Tony doing the first half, and Jenny doing the second half. And they were both wonderful, keeping us fully informed as to what was happening on the stage throughout. What impressed Mum and I most was Jenny’s ability to keep up with the fast-paced and action-packed fight scene in the second half. It’s no mean feat keeping up with a scene like that, where there is so much going on visually. Sure, she would have had notes she’d taken from a previous performance, but even so, you still have to deliver them effectively, and not in a boring droning voice where you’re just reading words with no emphasis or emotion. But Jenny carried it off perfectly. We got all the important details of the battle, delivered clearly and concisely, with an urgent energy that befitted the action on stage. So that was great.
It’s things like that which make audio description so worthwhile, helping to draw you in and immerse you in the action that you otherwise be oblivious to. I am able to use my monocular to see what’s happening on stage too, and indeed did so hear, but the audio description really helps me to know what I’m looking for and where, and points out all sorts of things I would otherwise have missed. And that’s why I love it for situations like this.
So, all in all, it was a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon. The touch tour was very enjoyable, the play was absolutely wonderful, and the audio description was really helpful. I’ll definitely have to go back to the Open Air Theatre again for more shows the future, it’s a great experience going to a show in the outdoors like that.