Theatre: Good Hook, but no catch

PETER PAN NATIONAL THEATRE LONDON

THE JOYS of JM Barrie's Peter Pan lie in the way it offers a long, lingering look at a state of childish innocence; its pains derive from the fact that, for better or worse, once gone that state can never be reclaimed. The depressing thing about John Caird and Trevor Nunn's version, directed by Fiona Laird, is that, for all its lavish display, it admits defeat so easily, offering a description of childhood that is often muddled and embarrassed.

Despite the fact that it weighs in at a fidget-inducing three hours, the production is clearly designed to appeal to the easily enchantable, though not undiscerning, gaze of pre-pubescents. On opening night, younger members of the audience were as vocal in their enthusiasm for the flying scenes as they were in pointing out the modus operandi ("You can see the wire!" a high-pitched voice behind me announced gleefully). And, for a few minutes, it's hard not to be awed, as the three siblings launch themselves through the nursery window.

Somewhere in the clouds, though, the show takes a wrong turning. John Napier's Never Land set, a rotating island groaning under the weight of its landscaped layers, resembles a CenterParcs kind of idyll. Far more troubling is the portrayal of the Lost Boys by actors who look well past the first flush of youth. Their faces smeared, their fully grown bodies covered in imitation skins, Pan's people ape the mannerisms of Edwardian cry-babies rather than adventurous young shavers.

This exaggerated infantilism is unwelcome in a play that delicately tackles the process of sexual maturation. Indeed,Wendy's presence as surrogate mother should be seen to stir in her young brood something more than fake- filial affection. Perhaps Laird imagines that the overacting sends up the widely spouted view of women as servants, but portraying the Lost Boys as mummies' boys robs them of the ordinariness that marks Peter Pan as different.

Justin Salinger's Pan conveys both the sadness of a none-too-splendid isolation and the exuberance of boyhood, and David Troughton offers a redeeming blast of panto: leaping with assurance from fretful Mr Darling to the fiendishly arch pirate, basking in boos and hisses. Hero and villain are lovable, both. The problem lies with the company they keep.

To 20 Feb (0171-452 3000)

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