Writer: J M Barrie
Adaptor: Ella Hickson
Director: Jonathan Munby
Reviewer: Fergus Morgan
It is difficult not to love a play that features swordfights, crocodiles, fairies and pirates. And it is difficult not to love a show that features actors soaring high above the crowd and an enormous pirate ship rolling across the stage, complete with mast and rigging. The Royal Shakespeare Company’s (RSC’s) production of Wendy &Peter Pan then, which boasts all of the above, is simply that: a show to fall in love with.
Writer Ella Hickson, who originally adapted J M Barrie’s classic story for the RSC back in 2013, has returned with a revised version. It takes some fairly large liberties in updating Peter Pan for a 21st Century audience, but the same basic structure remains as, crucially, does the same infectious sense of adventure.
There are no longer just three Darling children, but four: Wendy, John, Michael and Tom, the last of whom gracefully dies in his nursery bed at the beginning of the play. Wendy, John and Michael are no longer spirited away by Peter with wonder in their eyes and smiles on their faces, but follow him to Neverland – the place where lost boys go – in order to bring their youngest brother, their lost boy, home. Or Wendy does at any rate, flying out of the nursery room window, past the second star on the right and straight on ‘til morning in order to reunite her shattered family.
It is Mariah Gale’s Wendy that is placed centre stage. She is a conflicted young woman, determined to find her brother, caring for the clamouring Lost Boys, frustrated by Peter’s irresponsibility, and forgetting to have any fun for herself. Watching her struggle to cope in a world of irresponsible boys is a sharp rap on the knuckles for any man in the audience.
In a delicious twist, it is only Darrel D’Silva’s ageing, careworn – but still dastardly – Captain Hook that is able to show her any empathy. A scene in which Wendy, having been taken prisoner by the pirates, finally lets her hair down and enjoys a riotous jig on the deck of their ship is a marvellously witty inclusion. In among all the fun, Hickson also manages to squeeze some thought-provoking contemplation of responsibility, and how to cope with loss.
Elsewhere, Rhys Rusbatch’s Peter Pan is a skipping, howling charmer, his lilting accent making one weak at the knees; James Corrigan’s John is an enjoyably pompous cricket-jumper-wearing young man; and Adam Gillen is hilariously nervous as Martin, a Lost Boy among the Pirates. In truth, this is an ensemble with few weak links and a host of memorable performances. Arthus Kyeyune’s crawling, snarling, wide-eyed, eerily accurate impersonation of Hook’s nemesis, the ticking Crocodile, deserves special mention.
The true star of the show, however, is Colin Richmond’s gloriously rich set, which takes audiences from a chintzy pre-war children’s bedroom, to the Lost Boys’ chaotic underground lair, to Captain Hook’s skeletal pirate ship, and back to the bedroom once more. It is quite simply a magical journey, from start to finish.
Wendy &Peter Pan is not a perfect production. Hickson’s plot feels a little muddled, some of the choreographed fight scenes are over-busy and seem clunky as a result, and the lessons it wants us to learn sometimes feel a little confused – are we supposed to lead carefree, playful lives or realise the eventual importance of responsibility? But these are no more than minor quibbles. Jonathan Munby’s production is, for the most part, a charming, thrilling adventure for all to enjoy. It is impossible to leave without a broad smile across your face.
Runs until 31 January 2016 | Image: Manuel Harlan