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)

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