‘A Familiar Friend’ review: “a masterful intensity”

Shamika Tamhane highly recommends 'A Familiar Friend' at the Michael Pilch studio

At first thought, the idea that the story of Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie would be vaguely relatable to student life seems absurd. But Josh Bourne manages to take one of our childhood tales and vividly re-imagine it so it slots into our daily lives. Indeed, the crux of this play’s success lies in its use of contrasts and conflict; imagination vs realism, childhood vs adulthood, excitement vs mundanity, with the idea of childhood extended to encompass university life, including liberal drinking and drug usage. This carefree attitude is embodied in Chloé Delanney’s Peter Pan.

Here, the small intimate setting of the Michael Pilch studio proves to be very useful in creating the atmosphere of a student room. The staging team clearly have an eye for detail with the inclusion of fairy lights in jars, potted plants and a photo collage which adorn Wendy’s room. These down-to-earth, realistic props are contrasted by the other end of the stage which is decorated with fairy-tale esque trees and a clock on the branches. The contrast between the childish and the adult is something that frequently dominates – perhaps epitomised by the scene in which Wendy makes a phone call about her future career, whilst Peter lounges on, a bed carefree and oblivious.

This attention to detail extends to the costumes which are modern and well thought through. Instead of a girly fairy costume, Charithra Chandran’s Tinkerbell wears a sassy, on trend wrap-dress which perfectly expresses her feisty, protective demeanour. Peter Pan carrying a fanny pack on his shoulder, and an oversized patterned shirt, gave a nonchalant hipster aesthetic. Jess Brown’s Wendy moves from an innocent blue dress to a black dress and heels which reflects her move to becoming a ‘grown up’. It is a consciously millennial play in terms of styling and props. Yet, some moments were strikingly surreal with childlike wonder – such as a fight scene which used a mop and a hoover to create physical humour.

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However, the theme of drug-related mental health issues still pervades the entire play. Indeed, the underlying darkness from the casual use of ‘Fairy Dust’ adulterates and corrupts the innocent and childlike moments, turning them into something much more concerning.

The themes tackled (suicide, drug use and mental illness) could have threatened to make the play too monotonous but the vital injection of humour makes the tragic ending even more potent. Recasting Captain Hooke as Mr Hooke the ‘management consultant’ was pure genius. An evil pirate turning into a corporate drone who read PPE at Balliol could never go wrong. Alec McQuarrie’s performance as Hooke was a treat, although he came off far too likeable to be a villain in the traditional sense. But the lack of a villain figure certainly didn’t affect the play because such characterisations are often unconvincing. Humour definitely worked to the play’s advantage. Scenes were frequently full of witty, self- aware jokes on Brexit, tutorials and croquet dates. The loftiness of heavy themes is contained through these little references which bring it back down to earth and prevent any preachiness or melodrama.

The climax of the play was Chloé Delanney’s masterful and visceral breakdown, which bought all the issues to a head. The sheer energy and physicality in her performance was astounding as she bounced through varying moods of youthful euphoria and hopeless depression, with the emotional intensity making the audience feel almost uncomfortable. The use of voice-overs during the breakdown scene could have easily been clichéd, but Delanney’s acting dominated to prevent it.

The constant reminder of needing to grow up is a pressure that I am sure all finalists in the room felt. The feeling of encroaching internships, grad schemes and careers in overflowing email inboxes was illustrated by the frequent interruptions by Hooke and Smee. The actors’ sharp RP accents and even sharper suits were a constant reminder that Grace had to make a decision eventually. The spotlighting and phone sounds employed added to the sense of repetitive annoyance and persistence. Adulthood was further explored through the romantic relationship of Peter and Grace. We see a real intimacy between the characters during their conversations, but it is always clear that Grace must leave Peter.

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All in all, A Familiar Friend was an experience which utilised the best of cast, crew, sound, costume, lighting and props to marry contrasting and conflicting themes. It’s an original exploration of staying true to our childhood dreams or moving forward into a more practical vocation.

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