J.M. Barrie’s classic ‘Peter Pan’ has long been a beloved piece of children’s literature, but while many are introduced to it through books and films, its legacy has its roots in the theatre, first being written as a play by Barrie in 1904. This year, the National Theatre in London collaborated with devised theatre makers The Companies for a new production of Barrie’s play, employing DIY theatrical magic to bring the story to life for young and old. This acclaimed production is the latest in the National Theatre Live 2017 season to make it to screens, a fitting choice in the lead-up to school holidays.
The story of Peter Pan (Paul Hilton), Wendy (Madeleine Worrall) and the Lost Boys battling against Captain Hook (Anna Francolini) in Neverland is all intact, but director Sally Cookson and her imaginative team take a loose approach to the material. The classic dialogue and themes are all there, but with the freedom for the terrific ensemble to play and build from it. Set designer Michael Vale and costume designer Katie Sykes turn the enormous stage at the National Theatre into a playground arena filled with found odds and ends to construct the world out of, all the actors in pyjamas that look comfortable, casual and very functional. There are no kids in the production, but everyone taps into their inner child, capturing a wonderful sense of play and anarchy. This isn’t an idealised view of childhood behaviour, but one that shows an astute understanding of how kids interact with one another and the world around them.
'NATIONAL THEATRE LIVE: PETER PAN' TRAILER
As an adaptation-of-sorts of Barrie’s play, it’s both faithful and rigorous. Cookson doesn’t shy away from the darker themes in the story, especially how children come to terms with death and mortality. The sense of time passing permeates every moment of the production, whether it be Peter’s ability to halt it to his advantage or Hook’s constant fight against it. Peter is as brash and pig-headed as he should be, allowing Hilton to explore him as a child as opposed to an icon or a hero. Francolini gives Hook a wonderfully dangerous edge - we’re used to seeing him as a bit of a fop, but with the gender switched, this Hook finally becomes something to fear. She seems a genuine threat to Peter, something the production needed to get right.
There are other nice little touches too. Both Nana (the Darling children’s faithful dog/nurse) and Tinkerbell are played by men of colour, Ekow Quartey and Saikat Ahamed. Quartey’s entrance as Nana brings the house down early thanks to his witty interpretation of Nana, and while there is something a bit uncomfortable seeing a person of colour playing a servant in a 2017 production, he approaches it (and all his other wonderful parts) with such gusto and imagination that you’re led to believe this is (hopefully) just good casting and (hopefully) not lazy dramaturgy. Ahamed is a real treat as a stroppy Tinkerbell, who speaks her own language, a hilarious and playful mix-up of English words. The other well-considered shift is changing Tiger Lily (Louis Chumimba) from an Native American Indian princess (which is one of the more problematic stereotypes in the original) to the princess of a pack of wolves, keeping her warrior status but removing the racism. The whole ensemble is a delight, and its wonderful seeing such a multicultural cast on stage approaching this very English classic.
This isn’t an idealised view of childhood behaviour, but one that shows an astute understanding of how kids interact with one another and the world around them.
The overall approach to the storytelling is charming and endlessly imaginative, mixing acrobatics for the flying sequences, puppetry for the creatures in Neverland, inventive object manipulation to change time and place, and musical numbers to break up the story. There’s a real sense of spectacle, but none of the tricks are hidden - Cookson and her team want us to marvel at the mechanics of the theatre, and for young audiences, I imagine the "how they did it" would be just as exciting as "what they’re doing".
That said, ‘Peter Pan’ does suffer from the worst tendencies of devised work, often dragging out moments for far too long and overstaying its welcome. Much of the comedy and rhythm gets swallowed by the dead weight that holds the production down, especially with the songs that only occasionally work and are often far too slow to keep the story moving along. At three hours (when intermission is included), it’s just way too long, and while the second act is much stronger and more engaging than the first, it still tested my attention span. This may have to do with the NT Live capture of the production though, which is one of the weaker we’ve seen. Like the recent presentation of ‘Salomé’, there’s too much on the stage to capture effectively, losing some of the spectacle. The cast is also not effectively mic’d, so we lose around two thirds of what’s being said or sung. This is most problematic with the songs, with many of the lyrics being lost or unintelligible. Of course seeing it live in the theatre would have been preferable, but other NT Live presentations have been able to capture the essence of the experience. In this instance though, that has been less successful.
Even so, there’s so much to be charmed by with The Companies’ ‘Peter Pan’. Magic, adventure and entertainment are paramount, and it does the tricky balancing act of appealing to both children and adults. The run time might be excessive and the more bloated moments might fall flat, but at least you have an intermission to go grab a choc top and give yourself a sugar hit for the second act. At the very least, it lets you get swept up in the magic of Barrie’s story and in the inventiveness that theatre can create.