This is a rough, tough, spellbindingly imaginative production of JM Barrie’s classic play that takes us to a Neverland that is a graffiti-strewn urban sprawl, and brings home the play’s often troubling preoccupation with the pain of growing up – and being human.
It really is very, very good.
First shown at the Bristol Old Vic in 2012, Sally Cookson’s production has been pepped up for this Christmas run in the UK’s premiere theatre destination.
It’s dazzlingly inventive. Peter and the children whizz around on strings in the flying scenes, but with a conscious and confident nod to the stagecraft involved (Peter refers at one point to “fairy string”). The staging is simple in the early stages of the show – a bed and a stepladder are the only on-stage furniture in the first scene in the bedroom of the Darling family home – and becomes more detailed and involved as the play progresses.
The land of the lost boys eschews all planed-down Disneyfied associations and is a dilapidated sprawl where the boys scavenge, clutching their teddy bears and playing pranks with leftover prams in a touching reference to how they got there (Lost Boys are the pram-fallers as Barrie aficionados will know). Rusted detritus forms the jaws of the crocodile Tick Tock that pursues Captain Hook. Only towards the end does Cookson unveil her coup-de-grace: a magnificent rusty old pirate ship emerging from the Olivier’s large drum revolve.
The main thrusts of the original show remain intact. Adults play the children and the story is framed by Madeleine Worrall’s Wendy Darling, who we first meet as a reflective older woman and mother, reminiscing with her young daughter about the time when she and her two brothers were whisked away by Peter Pan to meet the Lost Boys.
Felix Hayes’ soppy Father refuses to take his medicine, sulks a bit and acts as if he wants his wife to be his mum. Normally the same actor plays Hook in Neverland but here it’s the mother, Anna Francolini’s Mrs D, who takes on the part. Freudians take note.
And this female Hook really does have an evil streak. She’s a very frightening creation in black wig and and jewelled teeth, who thinks nothing of slaughtering a crew mate. It’s a clever piece of gender inversion that works supremely well.
But in Francolini’s’s brilliant performance (below), there is the slightest hint that even Hook has redemptive qualities. When she sees Peter lying asleep she yearns for him, as a mother would. And she goes to her death in the jaws of Tick Tock with admirable fortitude.
I also rather liked Lois Chimimba’s Tiger Lily, a mercurial and fierce Glaswegian with her heart in the right place. She is surrounded by wolves: actors with masks who move and slink with perfect animal grace. Ekow Quartey puts in a fine comic turn, playing Nana the dog as a burly but eminently sensible man in a pinny. Siakat Ahmed also allowed us to feel for his Tinker Bell – extremely naughty but with a soft heart for Peter.
Then there’s Peter: clad in green suit and with panpipes dangling from his chest, Paul Hilton radiates charisma and evokes all the character’s playfulness, petulance, cruelty at times.
Of course, he is also the boy who is terrified of growing up and the poignant thing abut the Neverland scenes is that the Lost Boys essentially only play at Mummies and Daddies, before sensitively moving towards the finale when the Darling children return home to their real parents – taking the Lost Boys with them.
That the parents take the stray children in could have been turned into a heavy-handed polemic about modern immigration.The message is certainly there, but it is deftly handled. It resonates, but it’s not hammered home.
What this play is principally preoccupied with is parenting, but it remains faithful to the story’s psychologically astute preoccupations with childhood loss, abandonment and the haphazard pain and difficulty of growing up.
This production is not just a big adventure – it’s a brilliant one, too.
Peter Pan is at the Oliver Theatre until February 4 2017. Book tickets here