First Night: Smile high club

JM Barrie's classic is a jolly pastiche of children's adventure yarns; it's also a poignant study of the privileges and penalties of emotional retardation. Either way, Paul Taylor writes, the National's is a triumphant production.

God knows how many air miles Peter Pan has clocked up over the years but he adds considerably more to his meter in his (by and large) glorious revival at the National of the celebrated Nunn/Caird adaptation of JM Barrie's classic play. This began life in the Eighties as a huge hit for the RSC, but the Olivier proves to be an even better venue for the piece.

Uniquely handy for soaring purposes, there's that awesome height above the stage. One's whole stomach lurches with envy when the truck-set of the Darling nursery swings round and, from an exterior view of the house, Peter and the children are seen floating out of the window (John in a desperate horizontal doggy-paddle). Down below, a model of Big Ben hurtles round and off at a tipsy tilt, like a drunken dowager struggling to maintain dignity in a high wind, and the arena stage is wrapped in a see-through cloudscape curtain. Levitating till they are out of sight, the Darling gang here give a whole new innocent meaning to the term "Mile High Club".

Peter Pan can be described as many things - from a spirited jokey pastiche of children's adventure yarns to an aching study of the privileges and penalties of emotional arrestedness, penned by a man whose first-hand experience of these things gave him, peculiarly, both more and less distance on them than the average person. But, on a purely practical level, Peter Pan is a big insurance risk. At Tuesday's first night, for example, hidden mattresses notwithstanding, one of the mermaids dislocated her shoulder while jumping into the heaving, glittery silk strips of the Never Land lagoon.

This put a good 10 minutes on to the interval: the responses of my two assistants (aged six and eight) furnished a perfect illustration of the play's perception of childhood. One second, it was all soulful-eyed, arm- clutching solicitude: "Do you think she's in pain, Daddy?"; the next, a serene switch to cold-blooded self-interest: "Well, thank goodness it wasn't Wendy or Peter!"

That's Barrie's hero all over, except that, with him, this fickle state is tragically eternal, the defiant reflex of a sense of maternal rejection, and he finds it frightfully difficult to admit to the emotional concern. The Nunn/ Caird version of the play brings on Barrie as the MC to his own creation and he's played here with a wonderful donnish avuncularity and pipe-puffing rum-cove repression by Alec McCowen.

At the close, this figure anticipates a future of endless repetitions of this story - the same un-ageing, cyclically amnesiac Peter returning for a succession of child-mother Wendys: "Thus it will go on, so long as children are young, and innocent... and heartless!"

Though it has the odd pool of mild disappointment (Ian McKellen - not what you'd call a palpable hiss as Captain Hook; Jenny Agutter just a touch too self-preoccupied as the troubled Mrs Darling), John Caird and Fiona Laird's production finds a beautiful balance between the fun of the thing and the undercurrents of confused anguish. Perfection in virtually every department, Daniel Evans's Peter is a Welsh enfant sauvage, with an avidly radiant grin, a cunningly manipulative glint in his eye and an incipient sexiness not belied by the impulsive body language of an eight-year-old.

You sense the tremendous soreness inside the crowing swagger, the desperate need of the once-bitten to fight shy of the emotions that Claudie Blakley's splendidly untwee Wendy begins to stir in him. And when, in the conclusion's weird replay of the start, Wendy's daughter wakes up to catch him sobbing, Evans superbly captures the rather creepy way children can de-brief themselves of sorrow in an instant and greedily clutch at the nearest consolation.

In a teaming, characterfully comic company, pride of place goes to Clive Rowe's roly-poly black Smee, miscast by fate as a pirate when clearly what he'd love to be doing is a nice domestic-science course.

At the end, Peter hovers ecstatically and unattainably over the assembled cast - a symbol of limitlessness and the severely limited, of that which is lost perhaps for the better. Children look up in open-mouthed delight, tinged now by distress in the more subtle amongst them, while adults fight a lump in the throat the size of one of Hook's cannonballs.

`Peter Pan': in rep at the RNT until March (booking: 0171-928 2252)