From left, Paul Hilton, Madeleine Worrall and Marc Antolin in ‘Peter Pan’ © Steve Tanner
With its pirates, fairies, fights and flights, it is small wonder that Peter Pan remains a staple of the festive season. But at its heart is also a deep poignancy: there is wistfulness in the truth it considers that all youngsters should grow up and grow old — and a reminder that the alternative is far sadder. A recent staging at London’s Open Air Theatre brought that sadness to the fore by setting the story against the 1st planet war.
Sally Cookson’s rich, nuanced production doesn’t go that far, but it brings out that bittersweet tone and is streaked with nostalgia. In Neverland the lost boys live in a pre-digital globe, exactly where tin cans are pressed into service as telephones, a bicycle pump becomes a walkie-talkie and a skateboard turns into a boat.
And, as the production bowls through the story, the performances deftly bring out the psychological layers in the story. Paul Hilton’s Peter is a gangly, wild, man-boy in a tight green suit that fitted him when — both fascinating and slightly sad. Madeleine Worrall’s Wendy is a wonderful blend of common sense and girlish excitement — in her we see the lady inside the girl, just as in her father (Felix Hayes) we see the boy inside the man. The staging is complete of such ironies: reminding us, for instance, that when kids play, they usually play at getting adults (soldiers, pirates, nurses), and that adults are usually far more childish than their juniors. Meanwhile the doubling of Anna Francolini as both the loving Mrs Darling and a sinister female Hook adds to the questions about conformity, maturity and ageing.
It is also masses of fun. Cookson reaffirms the connection amongst play and a play: the large Olivier stage right here is turned into a giant adventure playground, a celebration of the ingenuity of invention and the joy of storytelling. There can be few who don’t shiver at the method of the crocodile, composed as he is of bits of corrugated iron and a saw for a tail. There can be few too who do not really feel a pang of envy as Peter and Wendy soar and swoop over the stage. And when, finally, the audience is necessary, it is so keen to play along that the clapping to revive Saikat Ahamed’s grumpy little Tinkerbell begins extended prior to Peter has even asked for support.
To February four, nationaltheatre.org.uk