‘I rather expected she’d be prettier’ says Wendy of Tinker Bell and I imagine much of the audience thought the same. In Sally Cookson’s production of JM Barrie’s Peter Pan, Tinkerbell is not exactly the daintiest of fairies. In fact, she’s a man.
Cookson, whose last adventure at Bristol Old Vic was to Treasure Island, has created a Peter Pan with grit. Neverland is an industrial building site, Captain Hook wears a kilt and Peter carries a knife.
But with the last grains of fairy dust swept away, Cookson reveals a story altogether more funny, disturbing and moving. A story not about eternal youth but about parenthood and adventure. With plenty of flying thrown in.
Peter is played by a spiky-haired (fully grown) Tristan Sturrock, looking dapper in a green suit. But he’s no boy: despite the pram he sleeps in (moving his teddies to make room), he desperately clings to his naivety and is terrified of growing up. Wendy, on the other hand, is played by a deliciously prim Madeleine Worrall, on the cusp of adulthood and already pretending to be ‘mother’.
But this is a piece of ensemble theatre with clever stagecraft at its heart – and a spare design from Michael Vale. The rest of the cast take on several roles and they all pitch in to change scenery, create sound effects and help out with the flying. The adorable Howard Coggins plays not only the long-suffering Nana, but also a hopelessly soft pirate, Smee, and earnest Lost Boy Tootles. Saikat Ahamed is a feisty Tinker Bell one moment and a be-sequinned mermaid the next. And there’s catchy music from an on-stage band (Benji Bower, Will Bower, Ian Ross).
Throughout, Cookson makes no attempt to disguise the show’s workings: she has no time for fairy dust. This Peter flies with ropes and harnesses – and that’s all part of the fun.
Occasionally the evening threatens to split into its separate episodes, but overall Cookson manages to keep the story’s familiar characters, from the ticking crocodile to the sweetly gormless Michael Darling (Gergo Danka), while also finding something more to say.
In the final scene we meet grown-up Wendy and her daughter Jane (Emily May Smith). As Peter tries to teach Jane to fly, Madeleine Worrall (Wendy) straps herself into a harness to provide the counter-weight, and quite literally helps Jane take off. A delightful touch in a refreshing retelling.