Peter Pan at The National: Review

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The National’s creative Peter Pan is a masterpiece in joy, but skips over the deep sense of loss found in Barrie’s classic tale.     

Following a triumphant run at the Bristol Old Vic, director Sally Cookson brought her production of Peter Pan to the Olivier, building on the success of her acclaimed adaptation of Jane Eyre.  

It was a wonder to return to Neverland, where kisses are thimbles, Wendy Birds fly and motherless boys fight pirates. In Cookson’s production, the cast soared and tumbled joyfully, taking the audience with them through the solar system, then alongside flocks of paper birds and straight on till morning.  The ingenious use of human counterweights, monkey-climbing two metal ladders on either side of the stage, and the humorous addition of ‘fairy string’ (carabiners and thick metal wire) as an essential ingredient to flight, gave a raw, industrial touch to what otherwise could have been falsely magical.  

The staging and props were fantastically novel, from the use of staple guns and lacrosse sticks as the pirates’ weapons, to the rising Jolly Roger displaying the full might of the National’s rotating stage. Captain Hook’s denouement was particularly impressive and – to avoid spoilers – somewhat reminiscent of a certain scene in Jaws

For all the magic, however, some characters fell a little flat.  Anna Francolini as a female Captain Hook brought nuance to the character, but her lines were too often hard to hear, even from the third row.  Paul Hilton as Peter Pan was a clever choice in many ways; he did not adhere to the romanticised and polished version of Peter so often espoused in films (Jeremy Sumpter in the 2003 being a prime example), but was more arrogant, meaner and emotionally damaged.  Whilst this nod to a more complex character was well received, he didn’t quite fit as Peter Pan in Cookson’s production –boyhood innocence had instead been replaced by damaged, aged rock star and it didn’t sit well with the rest of the play.  

Wendy was played very well by Madeleine Worrall, and Ekow Quartey was genuinely funny, first as dog/nurse Nana and then Doodles.  The production also has a new score, composed by Benji Bower, and whilst the moving band brought mood and visual interest in the final scenes in Neverland, too often the music felt repetitive and the singing was weak, especially when the cast was dispersed.  

Peter Pan is a magical, sorrowful story.  At the heart of J. M. Barrie’s tale is a deep sense of loss, and there is an inevitable difficulty in keeping this core whilst also appealing to children at Christmas.  The balance between slapstick comedy and panto-style acting on the one hand, and the more profound moments on the other didn’t always feel comfortable.  But the production just about managed to make it cohesive.

Although there were no tears, the final scenes were poignant enough, and lines such as ‘(night lights) are the eyes a mother leaves behind to guard her children’ can never fail but resonate.  As I left the theatre, I walked in front of a young girl and her father, who were busily analysing the last two and half hours; when asked what she thought of the play, the daughter gave a perfect analysis of J.M. Barrie’s original and, in many ways, this production: ‘It was sappy. Sad, but happy’.

Image credit: Steinar La Engeland

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