INTERVIEW: Charlotte Ellen (Writer and director of Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens)

Think of Peter Pan and you will probably conjure up images of Lost Boys, mermaids and pirates. But what happened before Peter flew into Wendy’s life? Before he even flew off to Neverland in the first place?

Find out at Iris Theatre this Christmas as Betwixt-and-Between bring J.M Barrie’s Peter Pan prequel “Peter Pan in Kensinsgon Gardens” to the stage for the first time.

We caught up with writer, director and performer Charlotte Ellen to find out all about it.

Most people will be familiar with the story of Peter Pan and Wendy. What made you want to adapt the lesser-known prequel?

Partly because it is not so well-known, and it really is beautiful. I remember discovering the book in 2014 and falling into a world of Peter Pan stories I’d never heard and wanted to share that experience. The characters are different but they are similarly witty and fun and larger than life – there’s Solomon Caw, a wise talking crow and lots of fairies, though not Tinker Bell, but all just as sassy and full of attitude, particularly Mab the Queen of the Fairies.  Then of course we meet Peter’s real mother and find out about her. 

In the classic tale, Peter, for all his ‘cleverness’ is described as ‘heartless’ and I believe this beautiful origin story reveals that heart and what happened to it: It challenges the idea that running away from growing up is the heroic thing and instead insists that ‘to live is an awfully big adventure’ whilst still reveling in the glory, power and magic of childhood, faith and imagination.

How did you go about turning it into a stage show? Its the first adaptation of this particular novel – Was that daunting or did you find that you had more freedom than if you had been attempting a new version of something which has been done many times before?

Making my first piece of theatre was daunting enough regardless, so I was actually motivated by my conviction that this forgotten story deserved to be better known. Whenever I’ve doubted myself, I’ve believed in the strength of this story. There are lots of things I did to prepare it for stage; explored rights, booked a venue, settled on a ‘frame’ for the piece with two actors that could work practically and creatively, read extensively (both the source text and around the subject) but in the end it comes back to some advice I was given by a writer in 2017, “just do it”. 

You wear a lot of different theatre hats (writer, director and performer).  Do you have a favourite?

I enjoy all the creative parts of theatre making. I have been an actor for ten years and that is what makes my soul sing; there is no feeling like the energy that is held in delicate tension between an audience and a performer, it’s alchemy and it is addictive. That being said, I’ve always loved stories, story-collecting and storytelling, so I’m not surprised that given the right stories, I’ve been drawn to tell them in writing. Likewise, directing is something I have tiptoed around as part of creative ensembles for years, listening and learning the craft. In the end it’s all serving a story and serving an audience. 

You first opened the show in Edinburgh back in 2019. How did audiences respond?

Edinburgh can be a bit of a beast – especially as a brand new company with just two people, so it was definitely hard work just to reach our audience, but then I think the project spoke for itself as an unknown part of a well-loved classic. We never sold out but it was quite overwhelming when people saw it and loved it, we had a lot of parents telling us it’s the first production their child had sat through and that they don’t stop speaking about it afterwards and the adults enjoyed the playfulness of the relationship between our characters Mary and her father George. I think many grown-ups were surprised at how funny, powerful and moving they found the story. There were also unexpected invitations that came from venues in the UK, Poland and a company that wanted to stage the show in Alaska which have kept us busy and been a real adventure. 

A lot has happened since then. What have you been up to over the last 18 months or so?

We’ve done a lot; we moved from our narrowboat in the midlands to a house in Scotland, which we hope to turn into a creative residency. During lockdown I collaborated with my friend, Helena Payne, who runs Pleasure Dome Theatre Company in Exmoor and director Scott Le Crass to produce a lovely J.M.Barrie play called The Twelve Pound Look for when theatre was able to reopen and of course we’ve been working on this play, adding in the new music by Patrick Neil Doyle and touring the UK over the summer and autumn. 

What are you most looking forward to about bringing this play to London?

I really want to be able to relax in this run and just enjoy sharing what we have created with our audiences. Christmastime is a really special time to be a performer – there is always a sense of event with theatre; of connection, celebration and of magic and these things are never more welcome than in the season of the spirit’ (The Muppet’s Christmas Carol). This show, which has been enjoyed by audiences aged 3-93, ‘beautifully captures the magic of imagination and childhood’ (-Everything Theatre ****) and where better to enjoy that childlike wonder than the heart of Covent Garden; with its huge tree, Christmas market, twinkling lights (and snow!!)?

Are you worried that audiences might end up in Kensington Gardens instead of Covent Garden?!

Yes! Though I hope it’s not a founded worry! I have to laugh – but we’ve honestly considered renaming the play “Peter” to overcome this confusion. The title Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens is from the prequel written by J.M.Barrie, because Peter Pan lived in Kensington Gardens before he flew to Neverland. We also sometimes have people who come expecting the classic story of Peter Pan and are waiting for Tinker Bell or Captain Hook to appear. It’s been an unexpected challenge of finding a less well-known prequel to such a famous character! Hopefully the marketing is as clear as possible and we’ll have a lovely audience enjoying the show and the magic of Covent Garden in this festive season!

Tell our readers why they should come and see the show. 

In 60-minutes you’ll hear the true origin story of Peter Pan, taking him back, before the adventures in Neverland we all know, told on stage for the very first time. Wonderful original songs by Patrick Neil Doyle will have your toes tapping, and the beautiful way the tale is told between a little girl and her father will have your imagination soaring as their games carry you away on a storytelling adventure. Best of all this is a play for the young at heart of ALL AGES, making it the perfect choice to enjoy with your nearest and dearest family and friends. Awaken the magic of childhood in the glorious setting of Covent Garden at Christmas, like all the best stories, this one will lead you home.

Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens is running at The Pod (Iris Theatre’s new pop-up theatre space in Covent Garden) from 29 November to 4 December 2021. Find out more and book tickets at