Peter Pan, National Theatre ★★★★★

Reviewed for The Reviews Hub:

While it is rightly regarded as a children’s classic, Peter Pan is, let’s face it, prone to being unbearably twee. Often presented on stage as a “straight” tale of children enjoying a fantasy adventure, to ignore its multilayered metaphors is to gut it of all excitement, reducing it to little more than a CBeebies-style pantomime.

And yet recent stagings have sought to explore the deeper emotions within JM Barrie’s play – of parental responsibility and negligence, of the desire to stay young fighting against the knowledge that one cannot – in ways that result in productions which can be truly magical. Sally Cookson’s production, which first appeared at the Bristol Old Vic in 2012 and is revived and further expanded now at the National, is the boldest and best attempt yet, resulting in a movingly hilarious production that combines the magical nature of Never Land and the transformative power of storytelling with the melancholia inherent in Barrie’s writing.

A key theme of the play is children’s relationships with their mothers, with Madeleine Worrall’s Wendy initially playing mother to her brothers, Peter, and the Lost Boys, only to find that the longer she stays in Never Land, the more they forget that it is a game. And while the Darlings hand over supervision of their children to a dog, Nana (played with boisterous humour by Ekow Quartey), it is to Wendy’s own mother that the girl looks to when called upon to act the role.

And here is where “traditionalists” may have issues with this production, as Anna Francolini pops up first as Mrs Darling, only to re-emerge in Never Land as Captain Hook. This is no drag performance – the hoop-skirted pirate is a strong woman leader, and just as convinced that she must take down Peter Pan as any male Hook has ever been. As well as restoring Barrie’s original idea of casting (he had originally cast Dorothea Baird as the pirate captain before Gerald du Maurier, already playing Mr Darling, successfully petitioned to play the role) it re-emphasises Peter‘s frustrations with his mother to often poignant effect.

Paul Hilton’s frenetic, pseudo-punk Pan fits in with Michael Vale’s set design, in which Never Land becomes a graffiti-strewn urban playground, further emphasising the blurring of a fantasy land with the idea of children’s imaginative play. He is complemented by an anarchic, frenetic Tinker Bell in Saikat Ahamed, whose freewheeling gibberish starts off being hilarious, before lending Tink’s “death” scene an air of genuine emotion.

Worrall is superb throughout, her tomboyish Wendy pushing against the notion that she should automatically become mother to Never Land’s community of Lost Boys. Indeed, this is a delightfully feminist reading of Barrie’s play, which all too often places women on pedestals while the men become the heroes. When Wendy’s brother John (Marc Antolin) object that Wendy is “just a girl”, he earns a sharp rebuke from Peter. In that vein, it is perhaps disappointing that Tiger Lily (Lois Chimimba) is underused, although her re-imagining as a wild girl who leads a pack of wolves is preferable to Barrie’s original Native American caricature.

Any production of Peter Pan has to contend with the issue of flight. Many a production has seen action stutter and falter, with Peterstanding curiously stiff while unseen stagehands attach and detach the fly wires. Here, Cookson’s production solves the problem of making flight look realistic by not hiding anything. Harnesses and ropes (referred to onstage as “fairy strings”) fly in, with actors hooking up themselves and each other in full view. The “counterweighters” – men at the other end of the wires, who leap up and down ladders at the sides of the stage to counter balance the lead characters’ leaps and flights – are similarly visible. This drawing back of the curtain certainly does not diminish the sense of magic and wonder in seeing the cast engage in aerial acrobatics. If anything, the reveal of how the flying stunts are achieved so early on allows the audience to concentrate on the superlative storytelling.

That said, Peter‘s aerial battles with Francolini’s Hook are the weakest part of the wire work. The biggest shame of that is that it detracts from Francolini’s powerful performance, with a Captain Hook who is scheming and ruthless but never over-the-top. It is that performance which, above all else, makes this one of the best interpretations of Peter Pan that one could hope for.

Continues until February 4.