Peter Pan, Regent's Park Open Air Theatre, review: Neverland really flies at this outdoor theatre

Winning performances and inventive puppetry make J.M. Barrie's familiar tale come to life

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The Independent Culture

Neverland is a great fit for this outdoor theatre, but Timothy Sheader and Liam Steel’s production offers us another world too: the familiar story is framed by scenes in a First World War field hospital evoked by a grey and raggedly deconstructed set. Escaping into J.M. Barrie’s fantasy world is a way of escaping the misery - or is it where the our boys end up if they’re unlucky in the trenches? The metaphor isn’t quite clear.

And while, yes, one of the children who inspired the original 1904 play of Peter Pan did go on to be killed in action, once we’re into the play’s action, this overlay doesn't add much, despite obvious resonance between the phrases ‘Lost Boys’ and ‘Lost Generation’. It’s a nice concept, rather than an particularly fruitful one.

Fortunately, once we’re in Neverland, things take off: the hospital-cum-nursery windows open out to a warm, rosy world, with pink camouflage sheets prettily suggesting cherry blossom. Hiran Abeysekera as Peter finds a sprightly balance of pluck and petulance. The Lost Boys, in holey pink combinations, are squirmingly puppyish, with Eben Figueiredo notably endearing as Tootles.

Tinker Bell, meanwhile, is reimagined as a metallic puppet made of lamps and animated with precision, and heart, by Rachel Donovan. Disney it ain’t - this garbled Tink sounds like she’s escaped from the Gremlins movie.

The pirates - lavishly costumed by Jon Morrell - are a pan-historical and international bunch, including samurais, Scottish barbarians and medieval knights; not as scary as they might be (especially Captain Hook), but great fun. Fight scenes are rollicking, while the buoyant, bouncing flying will have you yearning to join in. Wendy kissing Peter, and his whole body slowly lifting into the air with happiness, is one of several coo-inducing moments.

The live music - mood-evoking harp or drums - is lovely, although any songs beyond wartime standards (“Keep the Home-Fires Burning”, “Pack Up Your Troubles”) are usually just filling time. But there are creative, pleasing solutions for scene changes and dramatic set pieces alike, and Rachael Canning’s inventive puppetry conjures mermaids with gas masks, fishes out of pyjama bottoms, and a crocodile from a snapping ladder.

The production has decided to entirely ditch the Native American tribe of Barrie’s play - we don’t miss them - but if Sheader and Steel are going to cut for political correctness, I wish they’d trim some of Wendy’s little-wifey business.

Luckily Kae Alexander has enough childlike, artless enthusiasm to make Wendy very winning despite the character being a prim, prissy, domestic drip in Barrie’s practically Oedipal mother-worshipping original… I’m sure it’s enough to make many little girls watching think they’d rather go over to the side of the pirates, and after Ella Hickson’s feminist re-boot for the RSC (returning this winter), it’s hard to go back to swallowing these Edwardian values unquestioned.

Women are further presented as saintly care-givers by being Peter Pan-reading nurses in the wartime hospital. But if the historical concepts don’t always fly, the production happily does: this has family summer outing written all over it.

To 14 Jun; openairtheatre.com

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