Writers: Georgia Christou and Liam Steel adapted from the play and book by J. M. Barrie
Director: Liam Steel
Reviewer: Selwyn Knight
In the programme notes to Peter Pan, director Liam Steel says he wanted to, ‘create a new adaptation … that reflected the audience of today.’ He also wanted it to be very much Wendy’s story. Wendy Darling and her brothers have been let down by her mother and fostered out to a series of families, culminating in a placement with Jess in a housing estate in Birmingham. Wendy needed to grow up quickly to look after her brothers, for example, when the bookish Michael is bullied by the local feral children, becoming a surrogate mother to them. She’s a troubled teenager, old before her time, apparently unaware that she has somehow missed out on the innocence of a more typical childhood – leading her to be sharp and sassy, driven by her love for her brothers and a deep distrust of adults.
But everyone deserves a secure and loving childhood, so where does Wendy turn? She turns to her internal world, making up and telling stories to the boys, with their own feminist twist. Then Peter Pan enters her life, the permanent child full of bluster and cockiness, who carries Wendy and the boys to Neverland where they meet the Lost Children and the evil Captain Hook. It’s clear the Lost Children yearn for a family and welcome Wendy as a parent-figure, enjoying hearing stories, playing happy families and the joy that, for example, dancing to some heavy street beats, brings that has been absent from their lives.
Of course, not all can be sweetness and light and the evil Captain Hook and her pirate gang are hunting for Pan and the Lost Children. In a fine touch, the pirates, though undoubtedly evil, are clearly drawn from a child’s perspective and are what a child might imagine an evil grown-up to be like. There’s humour and a childlike innocence about Hook’s gang as well as Pan’s; were that not the case, elements could be rather too scary for the youngest audience members. As it is, the production is well-judged, stopping just short of that point, with an imaginative realisation of the crocodile when it finally eats Hook.
The whole has a contemporary edge to it, from the gritty, largely monochrome, multileveled set that bursts into colour in Never Land from Michael Pavelka to the costumes from Laura Jane Stanfield to composer Asaf Zohar’s pounding urban electronic music that eventually gives way to more pastoral notes as we reach the denouement.
Cora Tsang brings us the weary and streetwise Wendy. Tsang’s Wendy is feisty and everything a mother should be to her brothers. She brings a streetwise credibility to the role while also occasionally showing her vulnerable side: the moment when she is learning to fly under Pan’s tutelage and wails that she has no happy thoughts is truly touching. Lawrence Walker’s Pan is childlike, brave, self-centred. He switches from brash ebullience to vulnerability in an instant. His inner conflict at wanting a family and mother-figure while distressed that his own mother seems to have given up on him is well drawn.
Nia Gwynne plays the dual roles of Jess, the sincere foster mother determined to do her best for the Darlings whether she is appreciated or not, and Captain Hook, the pirate leader and sworn enemy of Pan. Her Hook is a rounded portrayal of a childlike woman looking for somewhere to belong: Steel’s direction ensures that neither this performance nor any others stray into pantomimic territory – although it gets close when Pan appeals to the audience to believe in fairies and bring Tinkerbell back to life.
While this is a delightful adventure for the children, it also has some big themes, principal among them the need to belong, to feel part of a family, to have someone on which one can rely. We see all of the groups – the Darlings, Pan and the Lost Children, and the pirates – express that need, while each finds a way of carrying on. The moment when the Lost Children come to an understanding of what ‘Home’ is from Wendy and realise where their home lies is another touching one.
So has Liam Steel successfully re-imagined Peter Pan for the twenty-first century? The answer is undoubtedly yes; this adaptation is a fine version relevant to today’s audience telling a contemporary story.
Runs until 19 January 2019 Image: Johan Persson