A refreshing, creative take on a much-loved classic tale is brought to the National Theatre; a perfect show for children and adults alike.
Peter Pan is a story which is ingrained in everyone’s childhood. We all know the adventures of the ‘Boy Who Never Grew Up’, his fights with pirates, teaching Wendy to fly, and of course his fairy-partner Tinkerbell. But with such a classic tale which is constantly iterated in pantomimes, films, and television shows – how can it be made different and stand out?
This co-production with Bristol Old Vic centres the story firmly around the idea of motherhood; a prevalent theme in the story, anyway, and really zooms in on this by casting Captain Hook as a female (Anna Francolini). Francolini, in her large gothic skirt get-up complete with hat and hook, is pretty scary as Hook. She is threatening, licking her bared gold teeth at the audience, and killing one of her pirates in her first scene; a shock as I thought this show wouldn’t be quite this dark.
The performance doesn’t make Hook likeable, but it doesn’t transform her into a pantomime villain, either. Instead, we are given snippets of Hook’s humanity; her questioning whether she should have ever been a mother, now unable as she is stuck in Neverland for ever. A scene, where she is dressed from her plain clothes and bald head into her Hook bravado by Smee is particularly revealing – there is more to this antagonist than we may think.
This change works in the grand scheme of the show. Francolini doubles as both Hook and Mrs Darling, the sweet mother of Wendy and her brothers. Knowing this, it makes sense for Peter to be fighting Hook in this alternate world: the Boy who Hated Mothers is fighting one who is a mother in another land. It’s clever and fascinating to see this unfold.
The show as a whole is bold and colourful. The floor is paint splattered, the lights are bright, and each character has their own personality and unique costume. What I love is that the basis for most of the outfits are pyjama trousers, perhaps making a point about the dreams and stories of children, or that the story begins at night.
Peter Pan (Paul Hilton) is not the sweet and charming boy usually thought of. Instead, he is cocky and arrogant, and it took me a while to warm to Hilton’s interpretation, but I enjoyed it. Wendy (Madeleine Worrall) is anything but an archetypal Wendy – she’s fierce and independent, and Worrall plays her with child-like energy. Tinkerbell (Saikat Ahmed) was perhaps the only change in character I didn’t particularly like. He was much too aggressive for my liking. A spark is fine, but the character was too dark for my liking. A child in front of me turned to her mother and said “I don’t like Tinkerbell”. However, I did like the choice to create a native fairy language to be used by him.
Other standout performances include Lois Chimimba as Tiger Lily and Ekow Quartey as Nana/Tootles.
The set is incredibly inventive – the flying scene is superbly crafted. Instead of opting for projections like most productions would, they instead choose to have various objects (planets, clouds, birds) soaring around the fliers, and an overhead voice announces “Welcome to Neverland”. The characters are aware they are on stage, referring to “fairy string” as they attach their wires in preparation to fly. There is also a lovely moment where the audience participates in reviving Tinkerbell by clapping.
The Lost Boys’ hideout is crates and dustbins, and the wolves are wearing masks with crutches for their second pair of leg, which for me was reminiscent of the Wheelers in ‘Return to Oz’. There are plenty of funny moments, too. Comments by Lost Boy Actually have me laughing out loud (“that actually burnt my retina”), and John singing the Carpenters’ hit “Close to You” whilst Peter and Wendy are flying/dancing is unexpected, but also touching.
The overall effect of the production is childlike, but with a splash of colour and modernity, making it fresh and new. Songs scattered throughout the piece are pleasant – not remotely catchy but still fitting with the story very well. The best was a duet between Hook and Wendy about Peter, where they stand on platforms leaning into their microphones in semi-darkness. We see Peter, an embodiment of teenage angst, pacing around the stage and it is in that moment we realise this boy that “many girls dream about” has flaws, too.
It’s little touches like this which make the show as much for adults as it is for children. Thought it’s silly, and fun, and full of colour perfect for children, it has such a powerful theme of parenthood within. “The window will always be open”, says Wendy as she watched her own daughter Jane fly out her bedroom window with Peter Pan. It’s true: the window will always be open for children to come home, and the window will always be open for parents to whizz back to their childhood, too.
I was invited and given a press ticket to this show, but all opinions are my own.