Put away childish things

Paul Taylor reviews alternative theatrical fare for younger people

At this time of year, children find themselves squeezed - figuratively speaking - at both ends. Instead of acting in shows developed from improvisation and real pupil input, all too many glazed, over-rehearsed, middle-class schoolkids will have had to take part in Christmas "entertainments" penned by adults. And what's worse, just the kind of adults who think it's huge fun if children are given, on occasion, archly "grown-up" lines to say - thus essentially leaving them out of the joke and feeling unsure about what exactly the audience is laughing at.

Required to impersonate spurious sophistication as performers, children are conversely expected, as consumers, to chaperone their parents to shows that gratify an adult's distorted nostalgia for lost innocence. As is the case every year, the country is awash with stagings of Peter Pan - from the thrillingly large scale, such as Matthew Warchus's spectacular, airborne and emotionally painful rendering at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, to the charmingly intimate - like the version directed by Dilys Hamlett at the Watermill, Newbury, which finds cheeky ways of getting round the problem that, in this confined but beautiful space, flying is out.

JM Barry, who had sad biographical reasons for wanting to put perpetual prepubescence on a plinth, can be credited with creating the most supremely blackmailing moment in world drama. Poor Tinkerbell, having turned up trumps and drunk the poison to protect Peter, is about to twinkle her last twinkle. But then "She says - she says she thinks she could get well again if children believed in fairies! Say quick that you can believe! If you believe, clap your hands!" As a child, I used to wonder how you were supposed to clap your hands when both your arms were being twisted behind your back.

Not that I'm against this moment. Yesterday, reviewing Jonathan Miller's joylessly rationalist Midsummer Night's Dream, I argued that it came across as the work of someone who, when he was a child watching Peter Pan, would have allowed Tinkerbell to die, rather than clap his hands. This was intended as an insult. You wouldn't want your children not to clap, or never to have believed in fairies: on the other hand, wouldn't it be fairer to them, after a certain age, to come clean and make a joke of the comical, sad fact that it's also to buttress adult illusions that they are being asked to applaud? This would constitute as bracing an introduction as any to the bizarreries of the grown-up world and its peculiar demands on children.

That moment in Peter Pan has been given shrewd creative twists by other writers. Towards the end of Beryl Bainbridge's fine novel, An Awfully Big Adventure, the heroine, a young member of a professional rep company putting on Peter Pan, hears that the seasoned old pro playing Captain Hook, with whom she has been having underage sex, has apparently committed suicide. It's her job to flash the torch on the mirror that creates the illusion of Tinkerbell. That night, though, "Stella dropped the torch and let it roll into the wings as the children brought their palms together to save Tinkerbell. The light swished from the back-cloth. For a moment, the clapping continued, rose in volume, then died raggedly away, replaced by a tumult of weeping..." A wonderful objective correlative for the death of the remnants of this girl's innocence.

In Steven Spielberg's movie, Hook, the Tinkerbell scene, played by lisping American schoolchildren, is interrupted by the sound of a mobile phone. This belongs to Robin Williams's Peter, a repressed lawyer who takes his work everywhere and is almost frightened of spending time with his kids. Why? Because he's "in denial" that he was once Peter Pan and lived in Neverland. This fascinating mess of a movie should be compulsory additional viewing for all children who go to the stage show because it's an invaluable insight into the way adults often don't even know the right questions, let alone the correct answers.

Hook is full of signs that Spielberg is aware that our conception of childhood innocence has changed radically since Barry's day. "What is this - Lord of the Flies pre-school?" mutters an anxious Williams on rejoining the Lost Boys, who here are a jungle-dwelling, racially mixed gang of potential juvenile crime statistics. On the other hand, the movie buys into all that psychobabble about bonding with your inner child, and with Williams, as with most people who go on in this way, you hope that when they find their inner child, it turns out to be the school bully.

There are two very interesting alternatives to Peter Pan's view of innocence now on in London. Adolescents would get something out of Strindberg's peculiar fairytale-like Swan White, directed now by Timothy Walker at the Gate. People familiar with this dramatist's Easter, with its useful heroine who can feel the pains of flowers and overworked telegraph wires, will appreciate that, rather as sentimentality is the opposite side of the coin to cynicism, a certain wetness with regard to innocence is the corollary of Strindberg's keen knowledge of the heart's darkness. But this story of a young girl who, left to the mercies of her wicked stepmother, none the less eventually works her way up to a selfless love that can raise the dead and offer forgiveness, is a weird and refreshing change from panto.

Proving once again, though, that the Young Vic consistently produces the best young people's Christmas shows, Laurence Boswell's theatrically thrilling version of Beauty and the Beast is performed in an involving, presentational style. Not stinting on the knock-about comedy and properly scary with its spooky tall doors in the aisles, behind which all manner of fearful things may lurk, Boswell's version is also an imagistically haunting meditation on the idea (as A Midsummer Night's Dream puts it) that "Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind". The show is salutary for two other reasons. The Prince turns out to be quirkily attractive rather than your standard dish. And when Beauty's prevarications kill the Beast, instead of finding her inner child, Beauty here finds her inner grown-up.

`Peter Pan': West Yorkshire Playhouse (0113-244 2111); Watermill, Newbury (01635 46044). `Swan White': The Gate, London W11 (0171-229 5387). `Beauty and the Beast': Young Vic, London SE1 (0171-928 6363)

Arts and Entertainment
Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)


Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own