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Phil Willmott

Review: PETER PAN at The National Theatre

Peter Pan - National Theatre The story of a puckish, eternal child, Peter Pan, who lures three Edwardian kids to fly away to a fantasy adventure on an island is so ubiquitously a part of the British Christmas that London even has PETER PAN GOES WRONG at the Apollo Theatre which pastiches it.

In complete contrast, at the National Theatre, the classic story is told with the sincerity of an eight year olds make believe, appropriately laced with a child's gift for naughtiness and mischief.

Director Sally Cookson is a formidable talent. She learnt her craft at the Tobacco Factory and then the Old Vic Theatres in Bristol before successfully making the jump to the major league with a highly regarded production of modem children's classic HETTY FEATHERS in the West End and an eloquent staging of Jane Eyre at the National.

Cookson has a very idiosyncratic style of making work involving a full collaboration with her actors that even includes their writing the script together. A bold production is then conceived by the team led by her, always utilising simple physical theatre techniques on an open stage.

This is also the approach she takes to staging PETER PAN and what a difference from the National Theatre's last scenically spectacular production, directed, on that occasion, by Trevor Nunn.

This Christmas all ages are invited to imagine a pirate ship when presented with a skip or to translate the sight of an adult actor wrestling with a stripy jumper into a battle between a child and a pirate. The press night audience cooed with pleasure and thoroughly embraced the idea.

There’s no attempt to hide the thick wires and ropes which allow the performers to fly, they’re referred to as “fairy string” and somehow being able to clearly see someone hauling the characters up into the air adds to the fun especially when, moments later, crudely made planets and roof tops are passed between them to simply and effectively convey travelling through the sky. A big canvas is then ripped away to revel Neverland, which in this production looks like a rubbish dump that kids have appropriated as an adventure playground. They assemble play houses and dens just as kids would.

The cast must have spend ages studying children as they are completely convincing as kids conveying all their inventiveness, selfishness, imagination and cruelty (several Teddy Bears suffer horrible indignities and violence during the show) At the back of the set is a platform where other kid-alts provide live music; very evocative underscoring and simple child like tunes and rhythms to accompany the musical numbers. It’s not polished musical theatre it’s the music kids make rendered by professional musicians.

Traditionally the role of the runaway children’s father is played by the same actor who plays the villainous Captain Hook providing a dark reflection on fatherhood. On this occasion, as the story is told from Wendy’s perspective, Anna Francolini plays the mother and Hook as woman. If anything this is even more chilling and weird. She is a desperate “empty nest” mum, strapped into her glad rags by her second in command, Smee, and dripping loneliness in her hunger to connect with Peter then vicious in her determination to destroy him when he shuns her.

If Felix Hayes who plays the children’s father was initially disappointed that he wouldn’t get to play the pirate chief he needn’t have worried. He makes just as much impact as a bumbling dad and a cruel, officious Smee.

Madeleine Worrall as Wendy and Paul Hilton as Peter Pan are no fairy tale prince and princess, nudging towards middle age they often resemble loving, playful bickering and sexually frustrated parents which of course is the point; these characters are kids trying to play adults portrayed by adults playing kids. It’s fascinating and there are many poignant moments when the one state of existence mirrors the other.

I did wonder whether youngsters wouldn’t rather see a realistic looking pirate ship rise up through the floor rather than a rubbish skip with a street lamp for a mast (I confess my inner child was a little disappointed) Also whether it wouldn’t have been more exciting to see real sword fights and whether it wouldn’t have been more magical to encounter an Edwardian fantasy aesthetic rather than a modern rubbish dump but every time I snuck a look at the kids around me they were absolutely entranced – so what do I know?

Not your usual Peter Pan but all the better for it.

Peter Pan