Writer: JM Barrie
Director: Sally Cookson
Reviewer: Stephen Bates
Say it quietly but London theatre seems to be booming. 2019 has seen a string of brand new venues announced, which include two Troubadours – this one at White City houses separate 1,200-seat and 800-seat spaces, while a sister theatre at Wembley Park is a single 2,000-seater. These are ambitious projects, but, to launch them, tried and tested family shows that bear the brand of the National Theatre (War Horse will be at Wembley Park) look like solid choices.
Sally Cookson’s revival of Peter Pan, a co-production with Bristol Old Vic, was seen at the National’s Olivier Theatre over the 2016/17 Christmas season. The larger space here is purely functional, with none of the ornate decor associated with the West End, but the awfully big adventures of the boy who refuses to grow up bring all the glitter that is needed.
It is often forgotten that, before the pantos, the ice shows, the films and the book, Peter Pan was a play, written by JM Barrie in 1904 for the theatre. Cookson takes extravagant licence with the original and in twisting common interpretations. Until quite recently, the eponymous hero would have been played by an actor who is female and petite, but John Pfumojena’s hyperactive Peter is neither. Similarly, Captain Hook would have been male and bewhiskered, but, clearly, Kelly Price, attired in a frilly purple skirt, is also neither. And then there is Shiv Rabheru’s craggy, crabby Tinkerbell, an anti-fairy if ever one existed.
It takes time for the show to take flight. The opening scene is made even duller than usual, played out in front of a dark curtain. Mr and Mrs Darling head off for a night on the town and, dismissing worries about what might fly in (or out of) the bedroom window, they tuck in their offspring. Would the pre-teen children of an affluent Edwardian household really have slept three in a double bed? Daisy Maywood is a delightful tomboyish Wendy who leads her younger brothers (Ammar Duffus and Alistair Toovey) through the window and on to Neverland in pursuit of Peter.
Once the curtain drops to reveal Michael Vale’s bright, open design, the new theatre also shows its colours, facilitating Peter’s flight to the very back of the expansive auditorium. Neverland appears like a cross between a ‘60s hippy commune and a scene from The Rocky Horror Show. Amid all the frolics, Cookson makes no attempt to suppress the darker themes that swim beneath the surface of Barrie’s writing like the huge crocodile that is realised here by Toby Olié’s puppetry. Price makes Hook a truly tormented soul and she doubles as the warm matriarch of the Darling family, adding a fresh layer to the Freudian subtexts.
One drawback with Cookson’s non-stop avalanche of inventiveness is that it tends to create diversions that obscure the main thrust of the narrative. Most adults know the story inside out, but some children at the press performance seemed to have problems figuring out what was going on. However, thrilling action, swashbuckling fights and breathtaking flights prove irresistible and Benji Bower’s excellent score, played by a rock band, turns the second half into a near-musical.
The ageless appeal of Peter Pan relies not only on fantasy and spectacle, which this production delivers in abundance but also on the manner in which the story connects with common experience. Cookson’s eccentric revival never loses sight of Barrie’s affirmation that real life, even though it includes growing old, must be better than Neverland.
Runs until 27 October 2019 | Image: Steve Tanner