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John Pfumojena plays Peter Pan John Pfumojena plays Peter Pan
John Pfumojena plays Peter Pan

Sally Cookson’s magical re-telling of Peter Pan, which was first seen at the Bristol Old Vic and reconceived at the National Theatre in 2016, is transferring to Troubadour White City Theatre, a new venue just minutes from Westfield. John Pfumojena plays Peter Pan. His previous works have included the film Oksijan and the stage version of Jungle. Ebonyonline.net features a recent interview with him ahead of his West London performances.

 

How would you describe your take on the iconic title character of Peter Pan?
I always take on roles if I can see myself in them so the take is not fantastical, it’s more about finding one thing – even if it’s just a line or the history of the character, whatever it is – that coincides with something in my own life. That’s the beginning of it and in this case it’s about not having a mum at a very early stage in my life. That’s a big thing because it’s about loss as well as figuring out how to move on and blocking it out. I lost my mum at the age of nine and Peter deals with thinking that his mum shut the window on him at a very young age. It’s not really about what happened, it’s about his perception of what happened. That’s his trauma.

 

What attracted you to the role?
As a black person doing this role in an iconic British story is quite something right now and especially for me because it was only when it was suggested I would take the role that I began imagining a world where I, a black person, could actually play Peter Pan. Otherwise it’d never crossed my mind. Before this it’d be like ‘Peter Pan, that’d be a great role to do’ without actually believing it would be a possibility.

 

You played Michael Darling in the 2016 National Theatre production. Was it your dream then to eventually play Peter?
I was playing Michael and it was a case of ‘There’s no way I’d get to play Peter’, especially when you’ve done the show already and you’ve played a different character. It sort of forces you into an acceptance, which shouldn’t be the case as an actor. But I’m immensely proud to be playing Peter now. It’s an amazing opportunity. It’s about seeing myself represented on that stage and hoping other kids see themselves and also it’s about finding that the story is about me and that in my own particular way I am the story.

 

Presumably you mastered some flying skills from your first time in the show?
Yes and it was great. Gwen [Hales], the aerial director, is wonderful to work with. The first time we did it at the National Theatre it was intense, of course, and physically demanding. But I think it’s still in the bones so when we came back to do it again it’s not ground zero anymore, it’s a little higher.

 

Is there more flying this time round and does the role present any other challenges, both physically and emotionally?
Yes, there’s more flying for me. As Michael I did a little bit but this time there’s tons more flying. The other physical challenge is that you’re running around like a six-year-old and here you are at whatever age you are, but it reminds you that your body is capable of so much more when you normally use it for less. I was talking to Sally [Cookson, the director] and saying ‘This show has come at a weird time in my life because I’m playing Peter Pan and I’ll turn 30 on this job’. There’s an irony to turning 30 when you’re playing Peter Pan, the boy who never grows up. Emotionally, having lost my mother, it’s a difficult one. Having just come from the show The Jungle, which I did for almost two and a half years, that was a very dark play and this production also has a dark side which J.M.Barrie really wrote about. He wrote in the novel that in Peter’s nightmares he’s wailing and pondering the riddle of his existence. There’s a lot of mental health stuff that, although it was written way back when, is very relevant today.

 

How does it feel to be opening a brand new venue?
It’s exciting. For theatre it’s like ‘Yay! That’s more employment!’ and also it sort of gives us the christening rights. It allows us to be in a space that we can make our own for the first time and people will remember the opening of this venue through the first show that opened it. That’s brilliant.

 

Can you recall when you first encountered the Peter Pan story?
My mum’s middle name is Wendy, which is another interesting connection, and I think we grew up with the Disney cartoon and in Zimbabwe where I come from everyone knows the story of Peter Pan. There’s no-one who doesn’t know it. It’s just a part of the culture.

 

Why do you think it’s such a beloved classic?
It’s a classic, I think, because it allows the imagination to roam. It projects the freedom of adventure and of being a child and growing up – the love, the care – with no restrictions on the mind and creativity. That’s something we’ve sort of lost in the world as we’ve gone on. We lose that freedom of being a child again because we have to be adults.

 

Can you recall your first visit to the theatre as a child?
I was seven years old and doing something on stage. I’d never actually watched anything myself; I was in something on stage before I ever watched anything in a theatre. I can’t remember what it was but I do remember my mum having to make me a cape for it. I loved it. I was also the only boy in my junior school choir so the performing bug did start early and it was definitely then, being on stage, that the seed about becoming an actor was planted.

 

Director Sally Cookson is known for her collaborative style. How has the experience been for you as an actor?
Sally gives you room to express and create. It’s so collaborative. She gives you the floor and she gives you that space, which is how a rehearsal space should be. You don’t feel you have to impress the director – it’s more about giving her something that she can respond to and in turn you respond back. You get excited to come into the rehearsal room.

 

Do you have any pre- or post-show rituals?
It depends on what I’m working on but the most consistent thing for me, thinking about it, is just to have a little quiet time to clear my mind. I do that in the dressing room and it doesn’t have to be a long time, just enough to clear away any inhibitions and stress, to free your mind and open it up to what you’re about to do. After a show, I can’t walk out of the theatre without seeing the cast out of costume. It helps bring us back to earth.

 

Peter Pan, 20 July – 27 October, Troubadour White City Theatre, 201 Wood Lane, London, W12 7TS Tickets from £18
Book via nationaltheatre.org.uk / 020 7452 3000 or at the Troubadour Theatre Box Office: 0844 815 4866*
* cost 7p per minute, plus your standard network rate.
Website: peterpanonstage.com, www.troubadourtheatres.com/white-city

Evening performances at 7.30pm Tuesday – Saturday (with an additional
performance on Monday 22 July). Matinees at 2pm on Wednesday, Thursday,
Saturday and Sunday. Check websites for full performance schedule.

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