Peter Pan – Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, London

Writer: J M Barrie

Directors:  Timothy Sheader and Liam Steel

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

Raised on adventure stories and barely out of school, a generation of young men went off to war between 1914-1918 only to find that the pirate swords had been replaced by shell fire, mines and gas. Suddenly the imaginings of J.M. Barrie seemed to belong to another world, one far removed from the brutality of mechanised war, where the concept of lost boys took on an entirely new meaning.

At a trench hospital near the battlefields, a group of men are recuperating from a variety of wounds. Moved by their condition, an inexperienced young nurse named Wendy starts to read the story of Peter Panto them. As they leave one conflict behind, the men are transformed into the Lost Boys and soon immersed in an ongoing battle with the dastardly Captain Hook, but can the arrival of Wendy and her brothers save them all from their inevitable fate?

Blending the fantasy of Peter Pan with the experience of the First World War sounds unlikely on paper, but in practice Timothy Sheader and Liam Steel’s 2015 revival, showing at the Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park for a month, brings a surprising poignancy and meaning to both stories. While only tangentially related, there is an admirable consistency in the way in which the war theme frames and continually bleeds into the childhood adventures that is mutually reinforcing, suggesting both the illusion of the men who fought, and the ultimate futility of their attempts to hold back reality.

It is in the staging that this production of Peter Pan manages to dazzle, and Jon Bausor’s set design opens in a Great War hospital surrounded by a trench system of corrugated iron and comic signs that reflect trench humour but swiftly shifts the action to Peter’s hideaway, creating a literal Wendy House, and later a wonderful pirate ship. There’s a lovely simplicity to it all that hints at a child’s ability to turn the most insignificant object into any number of creations, so Bausor employs a series of beds, pulleys, sheets and ropes to entirely immerse the audience in the world of Neverland.

This is supported by some impressive puppetry created by Rachael Canning that uses objects from the war era including shirts that become fish, some dystopian mermaids with gas masks for faces, umbrella jellyfish and a cleverly-realised crocodile, while Tinkerbell – although a deeply irritating sidekick with a mechanical screech – is created from a miner’s lamp. Completing the vision Jon Morrell’s costumes increasingly introduce army paraphernalia into the Lost Boys look as manhood beckons, while the wonderfully varied pirate costumes are a spectacular array of designs including a French Chevalier, Ninja, Viking-Scotsman and different kinds of medieval knights.

The story itself is much as you would expect, retaining all the elements of a standard Peter Pan with the added implication that Peter and Hook are futilely fighting their destiny. Because it’s aimed at children the acting tends to take on a sing-song quality that only gives the actors the odd moment of depth. None of the Lost Boys are distinguishable and you may find yourself siding with the pirates merely based on their more exciting attire.

While most of the Neverland group give big crowd-pleasing performances including Sam Angell’s bouncy Peter Pan that adopts the mannerisms of an eight-year-old boy, Dennis Herdman’s Hook is a cold-hearted villain but adds layers with a brief monologue on his wasted life. There is also good support from the extended Company drawn from East 15 Acting School and Arts Educational Schools London as a group of soldiers who offer tiny war vignettes including raiding parties that purposefully break into the happy world of derring-do.

Regents Park is an apt location for the production, allowing characters to emerge from the surrounding trees, while the growing twilight of this outdoor space adds to the semi-magical setting. The story of the Darling family and their enchanted friend may be overly familiar, but with the First World War Centenary events drawing to a close, it is an emotive reminder of how abruptly childhood ended for a generation of men – all those Peter Pans had to grow up eventually.

Runs until 17 June 2018 | Image: Johan Perrsson

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